How One Elementary School Teacher Infected 26 People with COVID

The unvaccinated teacher took off her mask to read to her students.

An unvaccinated elementary school teacher in Marin County, California infected 26 people with COVID, including a full half of their students, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the school mandated masks, the teacher had removed their mask to read aloud to their students — while they had COVID-19 symptoms. This case study highlights the importance of vaccinations for teachers and masks for everyone in schools.

The teacher’s symptoms started on May 19, according to the CDC report, which was published on August 27. The teacher attributed their fatigue and congestion to allergies and worked for two more days, occasionally breaking school rules by removing their mask to read aloud. As they developed a cough and headache and began to feel feverish, the teacher quarantined and got tested for COVID. Two days later, the results came back positive.

Over the next several days, half of the class — 12 kids out of 24 — tested positive for COVID. The classroom was set up so that five rows faced the front of the room. In the first two rows, 80 percent of students tested positive. In the back three rows, 28 percent tested positive. Two students in the class did not get tested.

But the spread didn’t stop there. In the following days, six more students in a different grade at the school tested positive. All of these children were in one class of 18 students; this classroom was separated from the first by a large outdoor courtyard. Four siblings and four parents of the kids in these two classes also tested positive.

None of the children who tested positive were eligible to get vaccinated. Of the five adults who tested positive, three were fully vaccinated. Twenty-two of the infected people (81 percent) had symptoms, the most common being fever and cough, followed by headache and sore throat. Of those who were tested for a variant, all came back Delta. Fortunately, none of the people who were infected needed to be hospitalized.

The scary thing about this situation is that the school was doing almost everything right. It required masks. All but two of the 24 staff members at the school were vaccinated. All classrooms had high-efficiency particulate air filters. Teachers left the doors and windows open for circulation. And yet just a few slip-ups — one unvaccinated teacher and a few instances of speaking without a mask — were enough to spur an outbreak.

This study lends credence to the argument that all staff in schools should be vaccinated against COVID and that everyone in schools should have to wear a mask. “The most important thing we can do to protect schoolchildren, particularly those too young to be vaccinated, is to make sure the adults in their lives, including teachers and school staff, are vaccinated,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the report, told the New York Times.

If your kids are back in a classroom where masks are mandated, it may be worth having a conversation with them about reporting when teachers take off their masks outside of times such as lunch. And to be safe, you may want to ask the teacher to move your kid to the back of the class.