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CDC finds scant spread of coronavirus in schools that take full precautions

Pre-kindergarten students listen as their teacher reads a story at Dawes Elementary in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Chicago Public Schools students began their return to the classroom Monday as school doors opened to thousands of pre-kindergarten and some special education students after going remote last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON - Schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, particularly when masks and distancing are employed, but indoor athletics have led to infections and should be curtailed if schools want to operate safely, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in papers published Tuesday.

The CDC team reviewed data from studies in the United States and abroad and found the experience in schools different from nursing homes and high-density worksites where rapid spread has occurred.

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” wrote three CDC researchers in a viewpoint piece published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The review, which echoes the conclusions of other researchers, comes as many schools districts continue to wrestle with whether and how to reopen schools and as President Joe Biden makes a return to in-person learning one of his top pandemic-related priorities.

A new CDC study, also released Tuesday, looked at 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin and found that seven out of 191 coronavirus cases resulted from in-school transmission. Researchers noted that students and staffers in these schools wore masks almost all the time.

“The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts . . . we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” said Margaret Honein, the lead author of the JAMA report. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”

She said that even in places with high infection rates, there is no evidence that schools will transmit the virus at rates that are higher than those seen in the general community and that they can operate safely as long as precautions are employed.

The CDC recommends that schools require masks, allow for a distance of six feet between people and keep students in cohorts to limit the number of people who must quarantine in the case of an exposure.

“With good prevention, we can safely reopen and keep open more schools,” said Honein, lead for the CDC State and Local Health Department Covid Task Force.

The researchers said they were far more concerned about indoor sports and other extracurricular activities that do not allow for distancing and mask use.

The new CDC report noted two December Florida high school wrestling tournaments after which 30% of the 130 athletes, coaches and referees who participated would be diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, which can lead to the illness covid-19. The actual rates may be higher, the report noted, because fewer than half the participants were tested.

After the tournaments, testing was conducted among the 95 people in close contact with the infected tournament participants; 43% of them tested positive. One person, an adult over age 50, died.

Wrestling, the report noted, is an activity for which distancing is not possible and wearing masks is not safe.

“The bottom line for me is really prioritizing the in-person educational setting and making the hard choices both in communities and in schools about other activities that we value but might have to be postponed to not jeopardize our children’s education,” Honein said in an interview.