Economic study

School reopenings ‘significantly’ increased spread of Covid-19 in Texas, economic study finds


School reopenings in Texas ‘gradually but dramatically accelerated’ the spread of Covid-19 in the fall and led to thousands more cases and hundreds of deaths, new research from economists at the National Bureau of Economics suggests. Research, diverging from previous studies that found school reopenings do not have a large effect on the transmission of Covid-19.


The study, which was conducted by economics researchers at the University of Kentucky and published as a non-peer-reviewed working paper, was based on county- and state-level Covid-19 data. information on teaching arrangements and start dates for school districts in Texas, where researchers note that most schools opened in-person instruction in the fall despite high levels of community spread.

Researchers found a “statistically significant increase in cases” in counties two weeks after schools reopened, which was associated with a minimum of 42,956 cases over the following nine weeks, or 11.5% of total Covid cases. -19 in Texas during this period.

Their models also found that school reopenings caused at least 818 additional deaths during this period, or at least 17% of the total number of deaths in Texas at the time.

In addition to the transmission of Covid-19 taking place directly in schools, researchers have also attributed the increase to “spillover” factors such as parents being able to do more outside the home if their children are away. school, and school reopenings sending an “incorrect signal”. that “normal activities are safe again” for the wider community.

Using mobile phone mobility data, researchers found a median 26% increase in the time people spend outside their homes on weekdays, suggesting that reopening schools has a wider effect. on people doing more outside the home.

Chief Spokesperson

In an email to Forbes, epidemiologist Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, noted several potential factors not considered in the NBER study that may have impacted on its findings. These include potential transmission differences between elementary, middle and high schools and the risk mitigation measures in place at schools, noting that “consistent, evidence-based risk mitigation works.” Fielding-Miller also noted that school reopenings are often “entangled” with broader business reopenings, and parents of businesses with a higher risk of Covid-19 transmission would be a bigger problem than their children. in schools. “I think a more effective argument would be that many workplaces are unsafe during an airborne pandemic and that improving workplace safety measures, enforcing OSHA guidelines and furloughing paid illness would likely undo much of the damage the authors document and associate with school reopenings,” Fielding said.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission” based on the available data, and several previous studies have not observed a strong link. between the spread of Covid-19 and schools. The NBER researchers pointed to several such studies, including a CDC study revealing low transmission rates in Wisconsin and a CALDER study conducted in Michigan and Washington, but noted that they may have suffered from some limitations, like relying on incomplete contact tracing data and not taking “spillovers”. factors into account. The NBER study also noted that schools that do not reopen have a negative impact on the mental health of students and parents, which must be weighed against the risk to public health.

crucial quote

“CDC guidance indicates that schools may reopen if community spread is low and considerable precautions are taken,” the researchers wrote. “Our study is not necessarily in contradiction with these orientations; instead, it just shows that school reopenings aren’t always safe if those conditions aren’t met.

Key context

School reopenings have been a difficult issue throughout the pandemic, and the Biden administration has largely pushed for schools to reopen — provided public health measures are followed — and lowered CDC guidelines for physical distancing in schools from six to three feet to better facilitate this. Children have been widely shown to be less affected by Covid-19 than adults, although some experts suggest they may be more susceptible to the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the UK and which is now dominant in the United States.

To monitor

The increase in vaccinations should significantly reduce community transmission, and although children under 16 cannot yet be vaccinated against Covid-19, the Food and Drug Administration may soon approve the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 to 15. years old and trials are currently underway for the younger ones. The researchers note that while all of this will make school reopenings less of a concern, there are issues that will make the issue still relevant, such as widespread vaccine hesitancy that can lead to the spread of the virus in communities where fewer people are ready to be vaccinated. the shot.


Examining factors in Texas communities that affected their decision to reopen, the researchers found that the strongest correlation was between a higher concentration of Trump voters and more in-person reopenings, suggesting that “decisions to reopening seem to have been driven much more by politics than public health considerations.”

Further reading

School Reopenings, Mobility, and the Spread of COVID-19: Evidence from Texas (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Expect all schools to be open full-time by fall, Biden education secretary says, changing tone (Forbes)

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