Teachers played a significant role in in-school transmission of the coronavirus, according to the results of an investigation by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published Monday – the latest findings in the controversial school reopening debate that come as school staff demand prioritization for the COVID-19 vaccines.

The CDC investigation tracked coronavirus transmission in schools in Cobb County, Georgia, from December through January and identified nine clusters of COVID-19 cases involving 13 educators and 32 students at six elementary schools. Two infection clusters involved probable educator-to-educator transmission, investigators concluded, which was subsequently followed by educator-to-student transmission in classrooms and resulted in approximately half of all the cases associated with the schools.

Approximately 2,600 students, or 80% of the district’s elementary school students, and 700 staff members attended elementary school in person during the investigation period – a period in which the COVID-19 incidence in the county increased almost 300%, from 152 to 577 cases.

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Notably, public health investigators identified several COVID-19 mitigation challenges.

For example, plastic dividers were placed on desks between students, but students sat less than 3 feet apart because physical distancing of 6 feet or more, which the CDC recommends, was not possible due to overcrowded classrooms. In seven clusters, investigators found that transmission among educators and students might have occurred during small group instruction sessions in which educators worked in close proximity to students. And lack of masks or inadequate masks likely contributed to the virus spread in five clusters.

“These findings suggest that educators can play an important role in in-school transmission and that in-school transmission can occur when physical distancing and mask compliance are not optimal,” the investigators concluded.

In the last few months, the CDC has published a handful of other small-scale investigations of coronavirus risks in school settings, finding, for the most part, that reopening school for in-person learning doesn’t contribute to community spread and can be done safely, even in communities with moderate to high transmission. The findings of the investigation do not counter those conclusions, but they do provide a nuanced look at the risks of reopening for in-person learning and underscore the importance of the risk mitigation strategies outlined in the CDC’s recent guidance for K-12 schools.

The CDC investigators’ finding that “educators play an important role in in-school transmission” comes as pressure mounts for teachers and school staff to be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccines as more school districts, including big city school districts, return students back to classrooms.

The CDC’s new guidance for school reopening does not recommend districts require immunizations for school staff but does call for them to be prioritized for vaccinations, which would add an additional and important layer of protection.

“Educators were central to in-school transmission networks,” the CDC investigators concluded. “Although not required for reopening schools, COVID-19 vaccination should be considered as an additional mitigation measure to be added when available.”

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