Study finds schools are safe during pandemic

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 10:49 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 5, 2021 at 5:54 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Researchers at the UVM Medical Center say a new COVID antibody survey of Vermont students and staff shows schools can open in a safe way and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Blood samples were collected from 532 participants — 336 students and 196 teachers -- of the Colchester School District to see if they had COVID antibodies. Overall, a little more than 4.5% had the antibodies -- 4.6% of students and 4.9% of staff. Kindergarten through 5th grade students had the lowest levels at 1.8% percent. Sixth through 12th grade students were at nearly 7%.

Dr. Benjamin Lee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the UVM Medical Center Children’s Hospital, says these these findings are indicators that schools are safe to return to.

“For the children in this study and the teachers in this study, they have been in school this whole academic term. And what these data would suggest is being in school right now is not associated with higher rates of COVID-19 and it is good confirmatory data that the schools are safe environments, that in-person learning can be provided safely without concern for increasing virus transmission,” Lee said.

The study comes as parents across the state and the country report increased mental health issues in their kids due to the struggles of remote learning and social isolation. Dr. Lee believes returning kids to school is the best solution.

“Absolutely. I think it’s very clear that our kids are not doing O.K. right now across the state and really, the single biggest factor in that is, that even now, despite all of the successes that we have seen in Vermont, it’s clear that this is not how we would ever envision a typical school year to be,” he said. “Kids have been missing out on a lot of opportunities since the beginning of the pandemic and certainly, we see how that is affecting them mentally, socially, emotionally. And so, allowing our kids to go back to school full-time would be absolutely, without a question, the best thing that we could do for our kids.”

Dr. Lee says the survey results show school attendance or employment does not appear to be associated with higher infection rates. He said with proper mitigation, schools can operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, even without widespread vaccination.

Dr. Lee says the data provides further evidence that young school-aged children in grades K-5 appear to be at lowest risk of infection.

UVM Medical Center says a total of 622 participants enrolled and the participation rate among students was slightly less than 20%. Blood samples were collected in the first half of December 2020, with a follow-up blood collection planned for the end of the school year.

UVM Medical Center says the survey participants volunteered, therefore this is not a randomized study, and the survey does not include every student or employee in the district.

According to the hospital, the study was conducted because children infected with the COVID-19 virus often have no symptoms. Some children may have been infected but never tested. Knowing the rate of infections in children could be an important piece of data to aid public policy, particularly regarding school attendance.

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