To What Extent Does In-Person School Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19?

Research Rundown Issue: January '21
Publisher: Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research
Date Published: December '20


Researchers used data from Washington and Michigan to consider the impact that a school’s instructional model—in-person, hybrid, or distance—has on COVID-19 community spread. Overall, they found impact varies based on pre-existing prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. They found that in-person learning was not associated with increased spread when the county already had low case rates, but that cases do increase when schools are open in counties with higher case rates. The researchers noted several limitations to their data, including their inability to disaggregate their sample by race or income.

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.

Read the full analysis