The Effects of School Reopenings on COVID-19 Hospitalizations

Research Rundown Issue: January '21
Publisher: Tulane University
Date Published: January '21


Researchers from Tulane University examined almost every county across the country to assess the impact that reopening schools for in-person learning had on COVID-19 hospitalizations. They did not find a link between school reopenings for in-person or hybrid learning and increased COVID-19 hospitalizations in counties that had low hospitalization rates prior to reopening schools. This finding held when there were no more than 36-44 total new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 population per week, with inconclusive findings for counties with higher rates of hospitalization.

As of mid-December, the researchers noted that 58% of counties across the country were below this threshold. Hennepin County, for example, went above the threshold between Nov. 13 and Dec. 4, during Minnesota’s COVID-19 spike, but fell below the threshold before and after. Data for other counties can be seen in this searchable spreadsheet. While the benchmark can help inform school reopening decisions, the researchers cautioned against using it as the singular factor in deciding whether to reopen schools. They also indicated that if schools reopen, they should keep the option to remain remote for families.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Deciding when and how to reopen has been a topic that the state, policymakers, parents, and school districts have been grappling with since schools closed in March. These studies— just a few from a growing body of work on children, schools, and COVID-19—indicate that an important strategy for enabling in-person learning is controlling community spread. While the number is changing every day as schools begin welcoming students back, about 13% of Minnesota’s districts are doing solely in-person learning, with 40% doing distance learning, and another 35% using a combination of hybrid, distance, or in-person. As this continues to shift, it is important that districts, educators, policymakers, and families have the best, most up-to-date research to make informed, collaborative decisions on school reopening.

Moreover, as we move into COVID recovery mode, gradually bringing more students back into buildings and addressing exacerbated needs, it’s important for schools to begin assessing student achievement. We will need good data to help inform which research-backed strategies to use to accelerate learning, how to equitably allocate resources, and communicate to families about how their student is doing. Initial findings indicate students—particularly students of color and low-income students—will have experienced some learning loss related to COVID-19 school closures.

In Minnesota, our fall learning plan analysis found that this was an area for improvement, with only two districts mentioning using local diagnostic assessment to measure where students are and what their greatest learning needs will be. And only four mentioned addressing learning loss, with only general outlines for action.

As the state legislative session begins, some policymakers must make addressing learning loss one a top 2021 priority. House Democrats introduced legislation that includes investments in programs to address learning and opportunities gaps—the math and reading corps, after-school community learning programs, summer programs grants, and more. We commend these investments and encourage Minnesota policymakers to also commit to gathering actionable data on student achievement that can better inform the equitable allocation of these resources.

Explore the findings