Despite high rates of COVID-19 in the Nashville community throughout the pandemic, transmission and infection of COVID was uncommon in the school setting when strict masking and physical distancing strategies were enforced, according to a study conducted by pediatric infectious disease specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in partnership with St. Bernard Academy.
The study occurred over a six-month period on the St. Bernard Academy campus, including weeks when Tennessee had the highest per-capita COVID-19 rates in the United States. Approximately 50% of SBA’s student, faculty and staff population (194 students and 36 faculty/staff members) voluntarily enrolled in the study.
Study participants supplied saliva samples every two weeks, which were then tested for COVID. Just 14 of the 1,451 total saliva screens were positive. Through detailed contact tracing, it was determined that the majority of these asymptomatic cases were the result of community exposure; there was no in-school transmission among the asymptomatic cases.
Adult participants were also tested twice for COVID-19 antibodies – only five tests returned positive and all were attributed to known symptomatic COVID-19 or history of exposure. None of these positive antibody tests were due to in-school transmission.
“This study confirmed that our mitigation strategies – especially masking – were crucial in keeping our students safe and in school this past year,” said Head of School Chuck Sabo.
Additionally, over the course of the study, 31 students and 10 faculty/staff members tested positive for symptomatic COVD-19. Only 5 of these cases resulted from in-school transmission (attributed to a single cluster in one classroom) in early October 2020. Following that cluster, SBA converted to a two-week remote learning period. There were no other cases of in-school transmission for the remainder of the year.
According to the study authors, strict, universal masking of all students and adults in the building was an important factor in the low transmission and infection rates. SBA also utilized a pod system so that student cohorts were all kept together and not mixed, maintained the usual small class sizes, followed physical distancing guidelines to space desks at least three feet apart, held lunch periods outside whenever possible and highly encouraged families to restrict social gatherings.
“While adhering to all of these strategies was tough on our faculty, students and families, we can now confidently say that our efforts paid off,” Mr. Sabo said. “We have shown that with the right policies in place, continued in-person classes can be done safely.”
Results of the study were recently published in The Journal of Pediatrics. The study was supported by multiple funding sources, including the Dolly Parton Coronavirus disease 2019 Research Fund to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“I thank all of our students, faculty and staff who volunteered to participate in this study,” Mr. Sabo said. “I especially want to recognize Dr. Sophie Katz and her team at Vanderbilt, along with our own Nurse Lauren Mauer for their partnership, expertise and assistance in helping St. Bernard navigate through the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year.”
The link to the full article in The Journal of Pediatrics can be found here.