By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
This is the first of a five-part series examining the difficulties of reopening brick-and-mortar schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most schools throughout the U.S. and the world were closed in March 2020, in the middle of the spring semester, due to the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Like pandemics of the past, COVID-19 has altered how we interact with each other, disrupted the flow of the economy, and changed how we view ourselves and others.
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The pandemic only grew worse in the U.S. during the summer. K-12 school districts and institutions of higher education held endless meetings about whether to reopen for full-time live instruction, as hybrids of in-person and online learning, or as fully online classes. Even as educators have tried to make sound, data-driven decisions that put students, teachers, and staff health concerns first, the school reopening debate in the U.S. has been a cacophony of opinions due to the contentious political environment.
CDC Data Will Be Used Throughout this Series
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be used throughout this series of articles. The numbers cited come from the CDC’s website, which is updated almost daily. These numbers reflect current trends in the number of cases and the number of deaths per age group. The numbers used for these articles were retrieved in mid-August 2020.
CDC COVID-19 Data for Children
One of the reasons why reopening schools seems logical is that children 17 years old and under are in the lowest risk categories for COVID-19. Below are the two main data points for the age range of K-12 education:
- 9% of cases are in the 5-17 age group
- 1% of deaths are in the 5-17 age group
This data suggests that sending children back to school seems like a small risk. In a different CDC infographic, however, you can see that compared to the age group of 18-29, the control group, ages 5-17 is nine times less likely to be at risk of hospitalization and 16 times less likely to die.
CDC COVID-19 Data for Teachers and Staff
With the risks of COVID-19 being relatively small for children, there is a different complication relative to reopening schools — teachers and staff. Below is CDC data for cases and deaths by age groups.
Cases by Age Groups:
- 1% of the cases are in the 30-39 age group
- 8% of the cases are in the 40-49 age group
- 6% of the cases are in the 50-64 age group
- 5% of all cases are within the 30-64 age groups
Deaths by Age Group:
- 3% of the deaths are in the 30-39 age group
- 2% of the deaths are in the 40-49 age group
- 6% of the deaths are in the 50-65 age group
- 1% of the deaths are within the 30-65 age groups
Looking at these stats, we can see a real risk to teachers and staff. Of significance is that 54.5% of all cases fall between the ages of 30 and 64. The average age of a public school teacher is about 40 to 42 and overwhelmingly female (76.3%). That puts the “average” teacher in a lower risk categories for the number of cases and for deaths.
However, if you are in the 50-64 age category, your risk of contracting COVID-19 is significant. A total of 21.6% of cases fall into this age group, the second largest. In addition, 15.6% of the deaths are in this age group, which is almost five times higher than the risk of death for the 40-49 age group and a 420 times higher risk of death than school-age children.
The 18-29 age group accounts for 21.7% of all cases, the most of any age group, and 0.5% of all deaths. There are teachers in this age category, but relatively few compared to those in the 30 to 65 age groups.
Even with Precautions in Schools, Some People Will Likely Contract COVID-19
For this article, it is assumed that there are relatively few teachers and staff over 65, much like the assumption that there are fewer teachers in their 20s than in the older groups. Nevertheless, if thousands of students, teachers, and staff go back into the classroom, even with precautions, some will contract COVID-19, which could especially endanger their elderly relatives.
Cases by Age Group:
- 7% of cases are in the 75-84 age group
- 6% of cases are in the 85+ age group
- 3% of all cases are in the 75+ age groups
Deaths by Age Group:
- 3% of deaths are in the 75-84 age group
- 9% of deaths are in the 85+ age group
- 2% of all deaths are in the 75+ age groups
Because the deaths for people 75 and older is so high, this means that anyone in that age group would have to self-quarantine (or continue to self-quarantine) from their own family. For some elderly, this would be impossible because they might live with family caregivers.
Additional articles in the series will deal with the complexities of reopening schools in K-12 and higher education. In addition to the health risks, we’ll examine the emotional well-being of the students, ethical issues, the financial complexities and the political divisiveness.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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