En español | One in 4 teachers in the U.S., or nearly 1.5 million people, are at increased risk for serious illness if they become infected with the coronavirus, according to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). This figure includes educators who are over the age of 65 or who have an underlying health condition that makes them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.
KFF's report comes at a time when local officials are grappling with the best ways to open schools in the fall, all while coronavirus cases continue to soar in several states throughout the country. Keeping children safe from the virus is one concern; minimizing the risk for adults working in school systems is another. And “failure to achieve safe working conditions” for higher-risk teachers “could have very serious results,” the KFF report notes.
Though anyone can get sick from the coronavirus, the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Deaths from COVID-19 are also significantly more common in older adults. In the U.S., the average age of teachers is 42.4 years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older.
What's more, health conditions that are more common in adults — including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease — increase one's risk for serious illness from the virus. An estimated 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, the CDC notes; about 40 percent have two or more.
Classrooms pose challenge for distancing
With few effective treatments and no vaccine for the coronavirus, public health experts say one of the best ways to prevent COVID-19 is to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other people. This, however, can prove difficult in crowded school environments.
"If you apply that to most school systems, that means you really can't have your normal number of students” in the classroom at the same time, says Travis Glenn, an associate professor of environmental health science and interim director of the Institute of Bioinformatics at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
Some schools are considering rotating students between in-person and online learning to limit the number of people in the building at once. Glenn says a strategy such as this could help reduce the risk for teachers, since it makes it easier to adhere to physical distancing guidelines. Having fewer kids in the classroom also makes it more likely that educators will “have fewer crises in an individual day,” Glenn says, pointing to young students who might break distancing protocols or fail to cover their coughs and sneezes.
Cloth face coverings are also being recommended by public health experts as a best practice to help mitigate the risk of virus transmission in schools. And the CDC suggests that schools consider alternative options for staff at higher risk for severe illness, such as telework and modified job responsibilities.
The percentage of teachers at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 — about 24 percent — is the same as for workers overall, the report's authors write. However, the KFF analysis does not take into account other essential school staff, which means school reopenings will likely impact an even greater number of employees. Glenn also points out that KFF uses a BMI (body mass index) of greater than 40 as its criteria for high-risk individuals due to obesity; the CDC, however, groups people with a BMI of 30 or more in the population of people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
The analysis also doesn’t account for those indirectly at risk for infections tied to school reopenings. A report released July 16 from KFF finds that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.
"How state and local officials balance the desire to reopen schools and other facilities with the need to assure the safety of students, parents, and school personnel will have significant health and economic consequences for both people and the communities they live in,” the KFF report states. “Assuring the safety of teachers and others at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus is a crucial part of the calculation around reopening.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information from a study released July 16. The original story was published July 13.
COVID-19 and Underlying Medical Conditions
These conditions put people at increased risk of severe illness.
- Chronic kidney disease
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher)
- Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Weakened immune system (immunocompromised state) from solid organ transplant
These conditions might put people at increased risk of severe illness.
- Asthma (moderate to severe)
- Cerebrovascular disease (affects blood vessels and blood supply to the brain)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Dementia and other neurological conditions
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Liver disease
- Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues)
- Thalassemia (a type of blood disorder)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Weakened immune system (immunocompromised state) from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids or use of other immune-weakening medicines