Masks and Distancing Won't Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests

The likely dominant mode of aerosol transmission cannot be ignored in school settings.

(© visoot/Adobe)

Never has the prospect of "back to school" seemed so ominous as it does in 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases climb steadily in nearly every state, the prospect of in-person classes are filling students, parents, and faculty alike with a corresponding sense of dread.

The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue.

The decision to resume classes at primary, secondary, and collegiate levels is not one that should be regarded lightly, particularly as coronavirus cases skyrocket across the United States.

What should be a measured, data-driven discussion that weighs risks and benefits has been derailed by political talking points. President Trump has been steadily advocating for an unfettered return to the classroom, often through imperative "OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!" tweets. In July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold funding from schools that did not reopen for full-time, in-person classes, despite not having the authority to do so. Like so many public health issues, opening schools in the midst of a generational pandemic has been politicized to the point that the question of whether it is safe to do so has been obscured and confounded. However, this question still deserves to be examined based on evidence.

What We Know About Kids and COVID-19

Some arguments for returning to in-person education have focused on the fact that children and young adults are less susceptible to severe disease. In some cases, people have stated that children cannot be infected, pointing to countries that have resumed in-person education with no associated outbreaks. However, those countries had extremely low community transmission and robust testing and surveillance.

The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue: children can be infected, they can become sick, and, in rare cases, they can die. Children can also transmit the virus to others, especially if they are in prolonged proximity to them. A Georgia sleepaway camp was the site of at least 260 cases among mostly children and teenagers, some as young as 6 years old. Children have been shown to shed infectious virus in their nasal secretions and have viral loads comparable to adults. Children can unquestionably be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spread it to others.

The more data emerges, the more it appears that both primary and secondary schools and universities alike are conducive environments for super-spreading. Mitigating these risks depends heavily on individual schools' ability to enforce reduction measures. So far, the evidence demonstrates that in most cases, schools are unable to adequately protect students or staff. A school superintendent from a small district in Arizona recently described an outbreak that occurred among staff prior to in-person classes resuming. Schools that have opened so far have almost immediately reported new clusters of cases among students or staff.

This is because it is impossible to completely eliminate risk even with the most thoughtful mitigation measures when community transmission is high. Risk can be reduced, but the greater the likelihood that someone will be exposed in the community, the greater the risk they might pass the virus to others on campus or in the classroom.

There are still many unknowns about SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but some environments are known risks for virus transmission: enclosed spaces with crowds of people in close proximity over extended durations. Transmission is thought to occur predominantly through inhaled aerosols or droplets containing SARS-CoV-2, which are produced through common school activities such as breathing, speaking, or singing. Masks reduce but do not eliminate the production of these aerosols. Implementing universal mask-wearing and physical distancing guidelines will furthermore be extraordinarily challenging for very young children.

Smaller particle aerosols can remain suspended in the air and accumulate over time. In an enclosed space where people are gathering, such as a classroom, this renders risk mitigation measures such as physical distancing and masks ineffective. Many classrooms at all levels of education are not conducive to improving ventilation through low-cost measures such as opening windows, much less installing costly air filtration systems.

As a risk reduction measure, ventilation greatly depends on factors like window placement, window type, room size, room occupancy, building HVAC systems, and overall airflow. There isn't much hard data on the specific effects of ventilation on virus transmission, and the models that support ventilation rely on assumptions based on scant experimental evidence that doesn't account for virologic parameters.

There is also no data about how effective air filtration or UV systems would be for SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk reduction, so it's hard to say if this would result in a meaningful risk reduction or not. We don't have enough data outside of a hospital setting to support that ventilation and/or filtration would significantly reduce risk, and it's impractical (and most likely impossible in most schools) to implement hospital ventilation systems, which would likely require massive remodeling of existing HVAC infrastructure. In a close contact situation, the risk reduction might be minimal anyway since it's difficult to avoid exposure to respiratory aerosols and droplets a person is exhaling.

You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity.

Efforts to resume in-person education depend heavily on school health and safety plans, which often rely on self-reporting of symptoms due to insufficient testing capacity. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 can be readily transmitted by pre-symptomatic individuals who may be unaware that they are sick, making testing an essential component of any such plan. Primary and secondary schools are faced with limited access to testing and no funds to support it. Even in institutions that include a testing component in their reopening plans, this is still too infrequent to support the full student body returning to campus.

Economic Conflicts of Interest

Rebecca Harrison, a PhD candidate at Cornell University serving on the campus reopening committee, is concerned that her institution's plan places too much faith in testing capacity and is over-reliant on untested models. Harrison says that, as a result, students are being implicitly encouraged to return to campus and "very little has been done to actively encourage students who are safe and able to stay home, to actually stay home."

Harrison also is concerned that her institution "presumably hopes to draw students back from the safety of their parents' basements to (re)join the residential campus experience ... and drive revenue." This is a legitimate concern. Some schools may be actively thwarting safety plans in place to protect students based on financial incentives. Student athletes at Colorado State have alleged that football coaches told them not to report COVID-19 symptoms and are manipulating contact tracing reports.

Public primary and secondary schools are not dependent on student athletics for revenue, but nonetheless are susceptible to state and federal policies that tie reopening to budgets. If schools are forced to make decisions based on a balance sheet, rather than the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff, they will implement health and safety plans that are inadequate. Schools will become ground zero for new clusters of cases.

Looking Ahead: When Will Schools Be Able to Open Again?

One crucial measure is the percent positivity rate in the local community, the number of positive tests based on all the tests that are done. Some states, like California, have implemented policies guiding the reopening of schools that depend in part on a local community's percent positivity rate falling under 8 percent, among other benchmarks including the rate of new daily cases. Currently, statewide, test positivity is below 7%, with an average of 3 new daily cases per 1000 people per day. However, the California department of health acknowledges that new cases per day are underreported. There are 6.3 million students in the California public school system, suggesting that at any given time, there could be nearly 20,000 students who might be contagious, without accounting for presymptomatic teachers and staff. In the classroom environment, just one of those positive cases could spread the virus to many people in one day despite masks, distancing, and ventilation.

You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity. Only with rapid identification and isolation of new cases, followed by contact tracing and quarantine, can we break chains of transmission and prevent further spread in the school and the larger community.

None of these safety concerns diminish the many harms associated with the sudden and haphazard way remote learning has been implemented. Online education has not been effective in many cases and is difficult to implement equitably. Young children, in particular, are deprived of the essential social and intellectual development they would normally get in a classroom with teachers and their peers. Parents of young children are equally unprepared and unable to provide full-time instruction. Our federal leadership's catastrophic failure to contain the pandemic like other countries has put us in this terrible position, where we must choose between learning or spreading a deadly pathogen.

Blame aside, parents, educators, and administrators must decide whether to resume in-person classes this fall. Those decisions should be based on evidence, not on politics or economics. The data clearly shows that community transmission is out of control throughout most of the country. Thus, we ignore the risk of school outbreaks at our peril.

[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: 5 Key Questions to Consider Before Sending Your Child Back to School.]

Angela Rasmussen
Dr. Angela Rasmussen uses systems biology techniques to interrogate the host response to viral infection. She has studied a huge range of viral pathogens, from the “common cold” (rhinovirus) to Ebola virus to highly pathogenic avian influenza virus to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. By combining current classical approaches to modeling infection and pathogenesis with sequencing technology and machine learning, Dr. Rasmussen and her colleagues and collaborators have identified new host mechanisms by which viruses cause disease.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Robin Cavendish in his special wheelchair with his son Jonathan in the 1960s.

Cavendish family

In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.

Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Kirstie Ennis, an Afghanistan veteran who survived a helicopter crash but lost a limb, pictured in May 2021 at Two Rivers Park in Colorado.

Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram

In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.

Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.

In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.

On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Melba Newsome
Melba Newsome is an independent science and health journalist whose work has appeared in Health Affairs, Scientific American, Prevention, Politico, Everyday Health and North Carolina Health News. She received the June Roth Award for Medical Journalism for a feature on genetic testing in Oprah magazine. She currently serves as core topic leader on health equity for the Association of Healthcare Journalists.