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Repurposed Preschool Study May Prove Beneficial In Helping Limit Classroom COVID Spread

 Sarita Sanmiguel’s kindergarten class at Redland Elementary in south Miami-Dade on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the first day that Miami-Dade public school students returned to their classrooms after learning remotely since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. A new study from the University of Miami simulated COVID-19 spread in preschool classrooms.
A new study from the University of Miami simulated COVID-19 spread in preschool classrooms.

The study was intended to monitor students’ language development, but researchers realized they could use the data to reflect how density of individuals in a classroom affected infection rates.

Vaccinating teachers and cutting class sizes in half would go a long way toward curbing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, according to a new study from the University of Miami.

The study, which has been submitted for publication and is not yet peer-reviewed, lends further support to policies like vaccine requirements and physical distancing in schools. According to the research, halving class sizes led to a 13.1% drop in infections, and vaccinating teachers led to a 12.5% drop.

Daniel Messinger, the study’s co-author, repurposed data he collected in preschool classrooms with the intent of monitoring students’ language development. But when the pandemic hit, he and his colleagues realized the information could be useful for a different purpose: combating COVID-19.

In the four Miami-Dade County Public Schools preschool classrooms where the study was conducted, 11 teachers and 50 children ages 2 to 5 wore vests containing audio recorders as well as location sensors.

While that initial study was intended to help researchers better understand how preschoolers’ conversations with peers and teachers influence the complexity of their speech, the raw data was a record of the movements and interactions in those classrooms.

How close people are to each other and how much time they spend talking to each other are major factors in the spread of COVID-19. So Messinger is using the data to predict what COVID-19 transmission would look like in these classrooms.

The vests include two position sensors, one on each side.

“That means we know which way they're facing. And that's quite important from the perspective of COVID," Messinger said.

“We simulated the spread of COVID given the actual observations of where children were and how they had interacted with one another in these classrooms."

As part of the study, Messinger and his team repeated the simulation dozens of times for each individual in the classrooms, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources to predict the likelihood of transmission based on different factors.

“We found that the density of individuals in the classroom — that was the key factor in rates of infection,” he said. “So if there are fewer individuals in a given space, it's safer.”

Further, the study found that when teachers are vaccinated and class sizes are cut in half, in more than 50% of simulations the first COVID-19 infection never led to a second one.

Messinger is repeating his study to incorporate other factors that could influence COVID-19 spread, such as universal masking or the prevalence of the highly contagious delta variant.

“What this study reminds us is that proximity matters, and density matters,” he said.

For example, he said, his research suggests students should be spread apart as much as possible while they are eating snacks and lunch.

“Likewise, preschoolers often take naps, and they typically take naps without their masks on,” said Messinger. “So the larger the space available when they take their naps, the more separate they can be, and the better off they are.”

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