Flawed COVID-19 Study May Be Putting School Workers and Students at Risk

On April 2, members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health’s (MassCOSH) Health Technical Committee had a letter to the editor published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal that rebutted findings of a study published by the journal that played a role in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changing its social distancing guidelines in public schools from 6 feet to 3 feet. The guidelines are being adopted by districts nationwide.

The letter questions the methods conducted in the journal article, Effectiveness of three versus six feet of physical distancing for controlling spread of COVID-19 among primary and secondary students and staff: A retrospective, state-wide cohort study. Authors of that article only looked at the written plans for distancing, not the actual implementation of those plans. They excluded all schools that were remote during the study period, which were most of the major cities in Massachusetts. They did include schools that were open just 5 percent of the time, which may have been much more influential on COVID-19 risk than their written distancing plans.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts (DESE) has used this flawed study to require that schools open for full, in-person learning across the Commonwealth. The result is classrooms filled to a much higher capacity than what may be safe. Last week, even before students returned to the classroom at higher numbers, Massachusetts saw the most COVID-19 cases in schools yet, a combined 1,045 infections between students and staff.

“It is critical that decisions about the return to in-person learning be based in science,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, MassCOSH Executive Director. “Unfortunately, a problematic study riddled with flaws, conducted right here in Massachusetts, has led to what is likely a dangerously high number of students returning to classrooms across the country at a time when cases are on the rise.”

The return to full-in person learning in the Commonwealth comes shortly on the heels of a DESE decision to remove all capacity limits on school buses in Massachusetts. To justify this decision, DESE claims that two things make social distancing unnecessary: the effectiveness of masks and the high ventilation rates on a school bus. Neither the CDC nor any other leading public or occupational health experts support DESE’s position that masks or ventilation make social distancing unnecessary. Bus drivers have already been hit hard by the pandemic. In Boston, two active school bus drivers and a bus manager died of COVID-19 in April 2020. A recent study of COVID-19 deaths among Massachusetts workers found that, from March to July of last year, transportation workers lost their lives to COVID-19 at twice the rate of the average worker.

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