Fact check: Too many factors involved to say teachers are safer in class than at Walmart

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 to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Months later, community outbreaks continue as some students and teachers return to the classroom for in-person instruction.

Though classrooms implemented safety steps to mitigate the challenges of reopening – such as mask requirements, social distancing measures and temperature checks – parents and teachers fear the possibility of a widespread outbreak. 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 shared more than 1,200 times. “The numbers show it’s true – teachers are far safer in the classroom than out in a public space.”

The post cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 7% of COVID-19 infections are school-age kids. The post calls the classroom “one big herd immunity bubble for teachers.” The user claims that any COVID-19 threat comes from other adults because kids provide a “safety net” for teachers.

USA TODAY was unable to reach 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 news conference in Jacksonville.

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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 in Bayside, Wis., on  Aug. 31.

Experts say comparison is difficult

JoshuaBarocas, 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 take.

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Makeda Robinson, an infectious disease fellow at Stanford University, told USA TODAY  there are various 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 said businesses such as Walmart have more employees to aid in the regulation of wearing masks, social distancing and hand-washing. 

"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. 

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," Dr. Allison Messina, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, told USA TODAY.

A comparable data point may be grocery shopping. Americans spend an average of 41 minutes per grocery store visit, according to the Time Use Institute.

Public schools operate in an average school day of 6.64 hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

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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, The Washington Post reported. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation said nearly 1.5 million teachers, or 1 in 4, are at a greater risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19.

The report says 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." 

In Michigan, 11 K-12 schools reported new or ongoing outbreaks, and there were 11 outbreaks linked to college campuses. Similar outbreaks took place in Colorado after students tested positive for COVID-19, The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported. 

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School districts introduced symptom screenings as 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 with the flu, but not everyone with coronavirus shows symptoms.

Robinson said that because school districts' budgets were reduced during the pandemic, resources 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 pay for cleaning supplies, masks and extra staff. 

Although some argue that children are exposed to the same people all day, creating a "bubble," Messina emphasized that those children go home to their parents and have contact with others outside the classroom. 

"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. 

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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: 

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