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National Bureau of Economic Research

Reopening schools and the COVID rate

Reopening schools led to more COVID cases. I mean, this is not a surprise, right?

When Texas schools returned to in-person education last fall, the spread of the coronavirus “gradually but substantially accelerated,” leading to at least 43,000 additional cases and 800 additional deaths statewide, according to a study released Monday.

The study was done by University of Kentucky researchers for the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and tracked weekly average COVID-19 cases in the eight weeks before and eight weeks after the state’s school districts sent students back to school in the fall.

The researchers said the additional cases they tracked after students began returning to schools represented 12% of the state’s total cases during the eight weeks after reopening and 17% of deaths.

They analyzed three things: school district reopening plans in every county, COVID-19 cases and deaths, and cellphone data that showed how adult movement changed once a community’s children went back to in-person learning.

Researchers chose Texas because, by the fall term, most schools around the country were still closed as Texas and a handful of other states were reopening in “less-than-ideal circumstances,” said Aaron Yelowitz, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the study’s researchers. The state also provided good conditions for pre-vaccine study, he added, since data was collected from May 2020 until January of this year, when vaccine rollout was still slow.

Although more adult Texans have since been vaccinated — about 30% had been fully vaccinated as of Saturday — Yelowitz said there are still communities in which the study’s findings could matter moving forward, like areas with more vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant people.

My kids have been back at school since December. Their schools were limiting themselves to 25% capacity, the kid would eat lunch at their desks, I trusted they would all be wearing masks, and they wanted to go back. It was a risk, and we’ve made it through – my older daughter is now vaccinated, and daughter #2 will be getting her shot as soon as we can get them now that younger kids are eligible.

We can all debate the risk mitigation calculations people have made regarding their kids and in-person school. I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed to keep their kids home, and I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed their kids to go back to school. I do think it was wrong to not prioritize teachers and other school staff for vaccinations – they should have been in group 1B, along with grocery story employees and other essential workers – and I definitely disagree with any school district that eased or removed mask mandates. It’s a failure of our state government that we didn’t take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of school reopenings, and now we can put a number on that failure. I don’t expect anyone in state leadership to accept any responsibility for that. But we can do something about it.