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Going back to school amid COVID-19 outbreaks means uncertainty and fear for students and teachers, but staying home presents problems too.

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The claim: Teachers are safer in the classroom than they are at Walmart

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools shut down nationwide in attempt to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Months later, community outbreaks continue as some students and teachers return to the classroom with in-person instruction.

While classrooms have implemented safety steps to mitigate the challenges of reopening — such as mask requirements, social distancing measures and temperature checks — parents and teachers fear for the possibility of a widespread outbreak. Yet others claim teachers are safer in a classroom “bubble” than they are in public spaces.

“TEACHERS ARE SAFER IN THE CLASSROOMS THAN THEY ARE AT WALMART,” reads a Facebook post from late July has been shared over 1,200 times. “The numbers show it’s true — teachers are far safer in the classroom than out in a public space.”

The post goes on to cite data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stating that 7% of COVID-19 infections are specifically school-aged kids, and claims that “the classroom is one big herd immunity bubble for teachers.” The user further claims that any COVID-19 threat is coming from other adults they work with because kids provide a “safety net” for teachers.

USA TODAY reached out to the user for comment.

This summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis compared school openings to visiting Walmart, Home Depot and other stores in his push to reopen schools for the fall.

“I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Jacksonville.

But experts say it isn’t that simple.

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Lacey Tomczuk takes a photo of her children, all wearing masks, before they get on the bus for their first day of school, while outside their home in Bayside, Wisc. on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Photo: Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Experts say the comparison is difficult

Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine said there are too many factors to make the claim that teachers are safer in a classroom than at Walmart.

“A person’s safety from COVID is determined by a number of factors including community prevalence, their own immune system, and how diligently people are implementing and adhering to preventive measures,” he told USA TODAY in an email.

Barocas said a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19 at school largely depends on measures that the school and teacher is taking.

Fact check: Masks are effective in stopping the coronavirus

Makeda Robinson, an infectious disease fellow at Stanford University, told USA TODAY that there are a variety of reasons why teachers are not safer in schools than in stores. 

Part of the school day includes children “eating lunch, playing and drinking from drinking fountains,” she said in an email. “All activities which are difficult or impossible to do wearing masks and all activities that can be avoided at Walmart.” 

Robinson added that businesses like Walmart have more employees to aid in the regulation of wearing masks, social distancing and handwashing. 

“Children can have a more difficult time adhering to these public health interventions and a teacher in a classroom is often acting as the lone adult, tasked with giving instruction while also having the added responsibility of being a constant minder to the students,” Robinson said. 

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Another issue is exposure time. 

“The difference is that in a retail store, you don’t have the same people there all day long. In a school you have the same students sitting there all day long, you don’t typically compare people to sitting in Walmart all day,” Dr. Allison Messina, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, told USA TODAY. “Young children have to be taught and instructed a bit differently.”

While there doesn’t appear to be public data on how long a shopper spends in Walmart, a comparable data point may be grocery shopping. Americans spend  41 minutes per grocery store visit according to the Time Use Institute.

Meanwhile, public schools operate with an average school day of 6.64 hours, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows.

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Outbreaks at schools, among teachers

Teachers in Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Iowa and Oklahoma have died since the fall semester started in school districts across the United States, The Washington Post reported. 

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation predicts that nearly 1.5 million teachers, or 1 in 4, are at a greater risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19.

The report states that the challenge for schools and teachers is “the sheer volume of traffic and tight quarters in many school environments, which may make social distancing a significant challenge in many settings.” 

Recently in Michigan, 11 different K-12 schools reported new or ongoing outbreaks, as well as 11 outbreaks linked to college campuses. Similar outbreaks also took place in Colorado after students tested positive for COVID-19, The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported. 

More: Between COVID-19 and layoffs, schools may not have enough teachers to get through the year

School districts have introduced symptom screenings as a part of their reopening plans, but Adam Karcz, director of infection prevention at Indiana University’s Riley Hospital for Children, told the Indianapolis Star that screenings are limited in effectiveness because COVID-19 shares symptoms similar to the flu, but not everyone with coronavirus shows symptoms.

Robinson said because school districts have had their budgets reduced during the pandemic, the resources available to school districts are limited. 

“Making investments in even temperature checks, masks, and hand sanitizer may be out of reach for some,” she said.

According to associations representing superintendents and business officials, an average school district with about 3,700 students will need almost $1.8 million to reopen in the fall to pay for cleaning supplies, masks and extra staff. 

And while some make the argument that children are exposed to the same people all day, creating a “bubble,” Messina emphasized that it’s important to remember those children go home to their parents and have contact with others outside of the classroom as well. 

“Its important to understand we have some good tools to limit the spread of coronavirus in schools, and universal masking, but if community rates of COVID are high, you are still going to have the problem of getting COVID outside of school,” Messina said. 

Fact check: CDC’s data on COVID-19 deaths used incorrectly in misleading claims

Our rating: Missing context

The claim that teachers are safer in a classroom than at a WalMart is MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research. Experts contacted by USA TODAY agree that there are too many factors to definitively state which situation is safer.

Our fact-check sources: 

  • Spendmenot, Aug. 13, 21+ Grocery Shopping Statistics for Every CUSTOMER in 2020
  • National Center for Education Statistics, Average number of hours in the school day
  • Indianapolis Star, Aug. 15, Screening kids is not enough to keep coronavirus from schools, experts say
  • Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association, What will it cost to reopen schools? 
  • Healthline, July 23, Why Reopening Schools Isn’t as Easy as Reopening Walmart
  • Dr. Allison Messina, USA TODAY Interview
  • Makeda Robinson, USA TODAY Interview
  • Dr. Joshua Barocas, USA TODAY Interview
  • Kaiser Family Foundation, July 10, How Many Teachers Are at Risk of Serious Illness If Infected with Coronavirus?
  • MLive, Sept. 8, Michigan reports 11 coronavirus outbreaks at K-12 schools and 11 on college campuses
  • The Gazette, Sept. 8, Coronavirus outbreaks reported in another Colorado Springs elementary school and a fast-food restaurant
  • Washington Post, Sept. 10, As students return, the deaths of at least six teachers from covid-19 renew pandemic fears

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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