Study set in rural Wisconsin schools suggests safety precautions lead to minimal viral spread; educators urge caution |

Study set in rural Wisconsin schools suggests safety precautions lead to minimal viral spread; educators urge caution

Alex Jokich
Updated: January 27, 2021 06:07 PM
Created: January 27, 2021 08:56 AM

A study focusing on the spread of COVID-19 in rural Wisconsin schools is shedding new light on the risks of teachers and students getting sick while in the classroom.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study looked at COVID-19 transmission in 17 schools in Wood County, Wisconsin, and found that there might actually be benefits to in-person learning when schools enforce safety protocols, such as wearing masks and maintaining distance between desks.

Over the course of the 13-week research period during the 2020 fall term, there were 191 COVID-19 cases reported in staff and students; only seven of those cases were linked to transmission at school, all of which were among students.

"We're able to tell an interesting story, that the cases really seem to coming from the community and not from within the school," said Dr. Amy Falk, a pediatrician in Wisconsin Rapids who authored the study, which included both public and private, kindergarten through 12th-grade schools.

Dr. Falk tracked COVID-19 cases from August through November. Among the 5,530 students and staff at those schools, 191 tested positive for the virus. According to the study, the Wood County Public Health Department linked only seven of those cases (3.7%) to in-school spread. Five of the cases were elementary students and two were in secondary school. None of the positive cases involved teachers or staff.

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All of the districts followed strict safety protocols, including mandated masking, small class sizes of 11 to 20 students, enhanced sanitation measures and social distancing in classrooms. The CDC found the rate of spread in those Wisconsin schools was 37% lower than the average community growth during that same timeframe.

"We found that, in a community that was raging out of control with COVID-19 cases, up to 40% positivity during the majority of our study, we really didn't see it echoed in the school system," Dr. Falk said.

The study comes as Minneapolis Public Schools is set to welcome some teachers back to the classroom on Monday. Pre-K through second-grade students will return for in-person classes a week later.

Some teachers, though, are not convinced and believe kids should stay in distance learning until widespread vaccination is possible.

"Even with your mask on, it's very challenging to know, am I still at risk? And I can answer, 'yes,'" said Jeanne Hoffman, a special education teacher in Kenosha.

Hoffman said she tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to the classroom in December and then passed the virus to her husband, who ended up dying from it in the hospital.

"It puts some of us at an unacceptable risk and losing the love of your life is unacceptable," Hoffman said. "Put yourself in my place. If you were holding your mate's hand and you knew the chances were dwindling of his recovery, I have to believe everyone would say, 'Well, my goodness. Of course it wasn't worth the risk. Why didn't we do more?' Well, we can."

Hoffman said her school district also used the recommended mitigation measures and she still got sick.

"It's going to happen no matter how safe we are because we know there's going to be others who just don't have that same level of urgency," Hoffman said.

Dr. Falk argues distance learning also comes with problems, such as isolation, mental health issues and kids falling behind in school. She believes in-person learning can be done safely, as long as appropriate mitigation measures are taken.

Dr. Falk noted her study does have limitations, most notably, that it involved only rural schools.

"Obviously, we're cautious with urban populations, which are so vastly different than ours, with different resources or lack of resources. But I think we tried to select many schools that might be of different size, different socioeconomic status," Dr. Falk said. "I think what's generalizable is that mitigation measures are very important and obviously the ability for each school district to do that is going to be variable but I think we know masks are really the linchpin to this whole thing."

While precautions seem to deter spread in the classroom, researchers have found that indoor school athletics could contribute to infections and recommend a rollback on those activities.

The CDC published a study that cited a wrestling tournament in Florida where 30% of people in attendance tested positive for COVID-19. Hundreds of contacts were traced, and secondary transmission resulted in another 41 infections and one death.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education provided this statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS:

"The MMWR released yesterday is one of a growing number of studies that provide evidence for low rates of in-school transmission when core mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, cohorting groups of students, proper ventilation, keeping sick individuals out of the school settings, and quarantine and testing after exposures are well implemented. Minnesota's Safe Learning Plan has always emphasized the importance of using these same strategies for schools providing in-person learning opportunities, and as a result our data have not demonstrated that schools represent a greater risk than other settings."

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht also provided this reaction to the study:

"Minnesota school districts are in many different places right now. Some are offering in-person learning, some are doing distance learning and some offering a hybrid combination of the two. That's OK. Districts are different. Educators and administrators calculate the risks based on their specific local plans, the rate of spread in their communities, and their students.

"It's good to see the CDC found low rates of transmission in 17 rural schools in Wisconsin. This is more proof that rigorous programs of social distancing, masking, testing and quarantines can limit the spread of the virus to low levels.  Anecdotally, many schools in rural Minnesota have found the same. 

"What we don't know, at least from this study, is what happens if a district attempts to use minimal safety protocols in an urban setting, or with especially vulnerable students, or in a community with higher rates of community transmission. We need to remember that many Minnesota districts closed their buildings in November because of how many staff got sick or were exposed -- either inside their buildings or out in the community.

"Community spread of the virus is still important and this pandemic isn't over yet. The best thing we all can do to reopen school buildings, or keep them open, is to do our part by wearing masks, keeping our distance, washing our hands, staying home if we can, and getting the vaccine as soon as it's available. 

"Educators want to be in their buildings with their students, but we're going to need everyone's help to get there, or stay there."

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