After keeping my kids home for 18 months, I sent them to school this week. I’m very risk-averse when it comes to COVID, so I’ve been a little, ummmm, on edge. Thus, when I woke up last Saturday morning and read about a case study in which one teacher infected exactly half of her entire elementary class with COVID, I started freaking out. To put it mildly.
Eventually, I got it together, and read the case study carefully and mindfully. While I still think there are reasons to be concerned (and reasons to be pissed off, but that’s a separate issue), I think there is a lot we can learn from a study like this, and that’s there’s a way to keep things in perspective so that we don’t all lose our minds.
What Exactly Happened Here?
The study, published by the CDC, described what happened this past May in an elementary school in Marin County, California. An unvaccinated teacher started to develop symptoms of COVID-19. Despite this, the teacher continued going to school, even while awaiting a COVID-19 result.
During that time, even though the school had a mask mandate in place, the teacher removed their mask several times to read to their students. Again, this is while they had symptoms of COVID-19. The teacher ended up testing positive for the virus, and within days, many of their students began testing positive as well.
A total of 12 out of 24 students in that classroom tested positive for COVID. Every single child who sat in the first row of desks—the ones closest to the teacher—became infected. Many of the students in the second row became infected too. 80% of students in the first two rows tested positive, according to the CDC. Some students in the back rows got infected as well, but fewer of them did.
Read case study. 26 elementary kids got COVID from unvaccinated teacher in Marin County, Calif. Young kids can’t get vaccinated. We need to protect them with vaccines and masks. https://t.co/6lVfNhsrK1
— Larry Brilliant MD, MPH (@larrybrilliant) August 28, 2021
Some students in other classes became infected as well, but the CDC suspects that this may have happened outside of school, at a sleepover. Several siblings and adults also become infected by the children who caught the virus in class. In total, 26 cases were traced back to this one maskless teacher. Experts suspected that that number would have been higher in a places that wasn’t as highly vaccinated as Marin County, which has a vaccination rate of 72% of eligible people.
Even though this was May, before the current enormous wave of Delta, the strain of COVID that this teacher was infected with was the Delta variant. This CDC study is the first researched case of what can happen in schools when it comes to Delta, as previous cases of COVID and school spread looked at earlier versions of the virus.
What Does This Case Tell Us About Delta And COVID School Safety?
To me, the most noteworthy thing about this case study—besides how very easily Delta can spread and how many people it can affect—is how one or two deviations from COVID protocols can be a huge problem.
On the surface, this school did everything right. As the CDC reports, the school spaced the students desks six feet apart, the windows were open during class, and there was an upgraded ventilation system. Moreover, there was a strict mask mandate in the class, and the CDC notes that there was generally high compliance with masking in this school.
Students were likely masked during the time that they became infected, which is definitely concerning, especially in schools where there are mask optional rules. This case study proves that everyone needs to be masked for children to be protected. No exceptions.
However, even with everything in place, the teacher broke several vital COVID safety rules:
- They came to school even while exhibiting signs of COVID
- They removed their mask to read to their students (remember that reading aloud often involves projection, which may have made more of the teacher’s COVID-tainted spittle and breath spew out at the kids)
- They did not take the vaccine, even though they were eligible for it
There’s a reason experts say that we need a layered approach when it comes to opening schools. This approach involves strict universal masking, ventilation, testing, staying home when sick, and vaccination for everyone who is eligible.
Schools are using a “layered” approach to create a safer environment for students and staff this fall. As an extra precaution, get caught up on routine school vaccines. For free or low cost clinics call the Healthcare Access Line at 1-800-756-5437 or visit https://t.co/I2vvZTxdQE pic.twitter.com/JJgTXCv8mO
— Public Health – Seattle & King County (@KCPubHealth) August 27, 2021
This case in Marin shows what happens when these layers are removed. With Delta, we literally can’t take any chances here, if our goal is to keep students safe.
Can We Talk About This Teacher For A Minute?
Okay, rant ahead.
I have nothing but sympathy for teachers. My husband is a teacher, my mom was a teacher, and both my grandparents were teachers. I understand that teachers often find it hard to take sick days, and that being responsible for the education, happiness, and health of a room full of children is a big, stressful job. We need to give teachers grace, even when they make mistakes.
I’m having trouble finding empathy for the teacher in this case study. They knew for several days that they were feeling unwell. This is a global pandemic. You don’t go to school around unvaccinated kids (0r any kids) when you are feeling even a little unwell. WTAF.
Not only that, but knowing they felt unwell, they removed their mask. I’m sorry, what? How is this okay? And why did this teacher think they needed to remove their mask to read? You do not have to do that. Yes, in normal times it’s nice for students to see your funny facial expressions as you read them a story, but this is not one of those times. Period.
Finally, it was May already, and this teacher was eligible for a COVID vaccine. The CDC said that all the teachers in the school, except this teacher and one another, were fully vaccinated for COVID.
Look, this teacher had the choice not to get vaccinated, as there were no vaccine mandates at that time. But then, this teacher should have freaking quarantined as soon as they had any symptoms at all. And by god, they shouldn’t have removed their damn mask.
I don’t know why this person is, or what they were thinking, but based on all their collective actions, or lack thereof, I have to guess that they didn’t exactly believe in the seriousness of COVID. You have to wonder why this person wants to work with children if they don’t believe in protecting them from contracting a serious and deadly virus.
In my opinion, this teacher should not continue working with children, at least during the pandemic.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ed Traver, an Infectious Disease Fellow at the University of Maryland, had a funny tweet about what we should learn from this case study: “If teacher has no mask, move to the back of the class.”
New mnemonic from the @CDCgov for all the elementary students out there:
— Ed Traver (@edward_traver) August 27, 2021
And yeah, I get it (and to be honest, I’m crazy enough to tell my kids to follow this advice). But that’s clearly not enough.
I truly believe that schools can be safe, or safer, if they follow all the COVID protocols carefully. Again, everyone needs to be masking indoors, no exceptions. Schools need to socially distance the students, open windows, and upgrade their ventilation systems. And everyone needs to stay the eff home if they are sick. I would love it if schools started requiring testing at least once a week too, like Los Angeles is.
Also: can we please institute a vaccine mandate for teachers? ASAFP? This case study underlined the importance of that.
Until then, I recommend you ask your child’s teacher if they are vaccinated. I personally have no qualms about doing this. I don’t think that’s a rude question, because our kids’ safety is at stake. The worst that will happen is that the teacher won’t answer.
I truly do believe that most teachers and administrators have their students’ best interest at heart, and are working hard everyday to keep them safe during this pandemic. As parents, we can and should wholeheartedly support those efforts.
But we can also demand that they do better, especially in places that aren’t taking COVID precautions seriously. Even in places that are, we can urge teachers and school administrators to really not let anything slip this school year. It’s a lot, for sure, but it’s something that I think all educators are capable of doing, and that most really want to do.
Fingers and toes crossed that we all have a happy and healthy school year ahead. We can do this.