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There’s been plenty of discussion around the health and safety of children and teachers as they head back to school this year. However, new research is also shedding light on all school employees, including support staff and administrators.
At least 42 percent and up to 51 percent of the employees who work in American schools may be at high risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19, according to a new paper published in the journal Health Affairs. The study aimed to look at all school employees by using data from an annual household survey that collects health, socioeconomic, and employment information from American families.
The researchers found that among all adults with risk factors for severe COVID-19 listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 33.9 million and 44.2 million had direct or within-household connections to schools.
Persons were classified as being at increased risk of severe COVID-19 if they were obese, age 65 or older, or had any of the following treated conditions:
- Cancer (other than non-melanoma skin cancers)
- Emphysema or other chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Kidney disease
- Coronary heart disease
A broader group was also created based on CDC guidance, and included those with factors that may potentially lead to increased risk, such as current smoking, treated asthma, and treated high blood pressure.
Of the school employees, low-skill support staff were more likely to be at higher risk (58.2 percent) than teachers and teacher assistants (37.8 percent) or administrators and high-skill support staff (39.1 percent). Obesity was the main factor that put school employees in the main CDC increased-risk group, while high blood pressure played a significant role in the broader group.
Even if school employees aren’t high-risk themselves, many live with individuals who are.
The study found that 63.2 percent of school employees live in a household with at least one adult (which was counted as either themselves or another adult) who met the main CDC criteria for increased risk.
More than 70 percent of low-skill school employees, school employees age 50 and older, and Black school employees lived in households with at least one high-risk adult based on the main CDC criteria.
Men were more vulnerable than women, and Black employees were more likely than white employees to have a higher risk.
Of course, the findings don’t necessarily spell out an answer for whether schools should remain open or closed during COVID-19.
“For many school districts, decisions over whether and how to reopen will likely be revisited throughout the school year, depending on local infection rates, evolving research on the effectiveness of preventive measures used by schools, and the effectiveness of local public health measures that are in place,” note the authors. “Against this backdrop, evidence regarding the health risks of adults with connections to schools is one piece of the puzzle.”
Previous research analyzing the risk of schools reopening has looked specifically at teachers. Nearly a quarter of teachers — or about 1.5 million people — are high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19, per a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
If your child is going back to school and you’re at high-risk for COVID-19, follow these expert tips to keep yourself and your family healthy.
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How Many Teachers Are at Risk of Serious Illness If Infected with Coronavirus? Kaiser Family Foundation. July 10, 2020. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/how-many-teachers-are-at-risk-of-serious-illness-if-infected-with-coronavirus.
Selden, TM et al. The Risk of Severe COVID-19 Within Households Of School Employees And School-Age Children. Health Affairs. September 17, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.01536.