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CDC Report: Educators May Be Central To In-School Transmission Of COVID-19


President Joe Biden is pushing for elementary schools to reopen by the end of his first 100 days in office. That's just two months away. And we're still learning how COVID-19 can spread in the classroom. The biggest concern has always been about students, maybe unknowingly, infecting others. Now a report by the CDC says educators themselves are spreading the virus. Grant Rivera is the superintendent of Marietta Schools in Marietta, Ga., where the study was conducted. And he joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

GRANT RIVERA: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: The report identified nine clusters of COVID-19 cases in your district. Eight of those clusters involved probable teacher-to-student transmission. Did that come as a surprise to you?

RIVERA: In part, yes. I mean, as we initially considered reopening schools back in the very early part of the fall, I don't think educators or, for that matter, scientists knew exactly how spread occurred in school buildings. So for us, we were concerned about students. We were concerned about staff. And I think what this study helped us understand - and I think this ripples across every classroom in America - is that it's really about the adult-to-adult and adult-to-student spread.

MARTIN: Why? I mean, what have you learned about - why the prevalence among teachers?

RIVERA: Well, for us, it was about really tracking what's occurring in our buildings. And certainly, I'm not a doctor. And I can't speak to exactly the physiology of an adult body over a child's body. But what we know is that the adults' behaviors in a building matter. So we saw adults who were coming together to collaborate and plan and work. And we saw adults who might come together and have lunch, sometimes taking their mask off to do such, to do both. And we saw those as potential links throughout a building that would in turn not only spread to other colleagues, but also to students. And, I think, understanding that spread is so critically important as we try to keep our classrooms safe and leverage the science and the data to, hopefully, keep our schools open.

MARTIN: What - can I ask what percentage of your students are back in the classroom learning in person?

RIVERA: Yeah. So it varies from pre-K and kindergarten all the way up to high school. In our elementary grades, we have roughly 70 to 90% of our children back for in-person learning. And it decreases in middle school. We're roughly 35 to 45%. In our high school, we're more 30 to 40%. And really, I think that speaks to developmentally how important it is. I think a lot of families, especially in elementary grades, as their kids are learning to read, they understand how important it is for their kids to be in the classroom to do such. So we have much higher attendance in our elementary classes.

MARTIN: So how is this study going to inform your reopening plans in Marietta in the next few months?

RIVERA: Sure. So currently, we are open four days a week in Marietta. And for our elementary classes, I've done such - we've been such since September. And for us, as we were doing this study, we were fortunate to have an extensive team of contact tracers. And we were able to more extensively COVID test not just people who might have been close contacts, but people who may have been in a classroom or on a school bus or what have you. And for us, we made many, many midcourse corrections as we started to learn more about this data. So for example, an elementary classroom across - many classrooms across the country, you've got children who are - and teachers who are working in small groups.

For us in Marietta, we learned through this study and we learned through classroom walkthroughs with the CDC scientists and disease investigators that we have to start to reengineer the classroom. So that may mean that in small group sessions that occur with a teacher and three or four students, maybe now that needs to be two students where we can separate by six feet. And it needs to be for less than 15 minutes so we don't create a potential close contact. We've looked at eliminating rug time. That's so important in so many primary elementary classrooms where we create a sense of community and work on the social, emotional needs of kids. We just really looked at reengineering a classroom to maximize the space in every classroom in our district.

MARTIN: What does that mean for the fall? I mean, these are big changes you're talking about, some of them. What are your plans for the new school year in the fall?

RIVERA: Well, I think there's two dynamics. I think one is you acknowledge that we have to get educators vaccinated. The power of this study was to show that if we can vaccinate educators, then we can decrease potential transmission in the building. So our first priority is to make sure we get as many educators vaccinated as possible for those who want to. I think, the second, we have to acknowledge, though, that this vaccine is not coming for students any time soon. And while we may be able to get educators vaccinated this spring and into the summer, I don't anticipate, based on what I understand, that we're going to have a vaccine when we open schools in August.

So with that said, we're going to have to continue some of the same expectations we have now in Marietta. Masks are required. Social distancing is encouraged. Kids may eat lunch outside. We've made a lot of changes to the HVAC system in our schools and our offices. So I think we know more now. And quite candidly, through this study, once we know better, we do better. And we're already planning accordingly as we look to August.

MARTIN: Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta City Schools in Marietta, Ga. Thank you so much for your time.

RIVERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.