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Pitt, CMU Study Finds Remote Learning Led To Lower COVID Cases And Deaths In Ohio Counties

remote distance learning coronavirus education student teacher school virus outbreak computer
Jay LaPrete
Graciela Leahy, 13, an eighth grader at Ohio's Columbus Gifted Academy, works on her computer in her bedroom, in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 23, 2021, to begin a stretch of nearly six straight hours at her desk. A year later in the pandemic, the unplanned experiment with distance learning continues for thousands of students like Leahy who have yet to set foot back in classrooms.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) published new findings linking in-person learning with COVID-19 transmission. The analysis finds a dramatic reduction of cases and deaths in Ohio counties that opted for remote learning in fall 2020.

Lead researcher Dr. Seema Lakdawala of the University of Pittsburgh said the correlation between the return to school in the fall semester and virus transmission was startling.

“Drastically in the first six weeks, counties that were predominantly on-premises had a much higher acceleration of the disease and COVID-19 deaths and infections than other counties,” Lakdawala said.

The team chose to study Ohio communities because its statewide mandates and interventions removed major confounders present in other states. While precautions might differ from household to household, the state gave all its schools and communities the same recommendations.

“You could argue that in other places you would see differences based on potential political leanings,” she said. “But that wasn't the case here, at least not in our opinion.”

Lakdawala said she wants to return to in-person learning this year, but stressed it must be done carefully. She said safety measures like wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands will protect students, but the vaccination of teachers and eligible family members will prevent the virus from infecting a larger portion of the community.

“When [kids] are in school, even if they get the virus, the barrier to transmission with immunity in the population is so much higher that it won't spread and we won't have outbreaks in our communities,” Lakdawala said.

Lakdawala worked alongside CMU’s Valerie Venture, Rebecca Nugent and four graduate students who developed a computational model for data analysis. Nearly all members of their research team are women.

Margaret Fleming is a newsroom production assistant from Chicago, IL. She's a rising junior studying journalism at Northwestern University and covers sports at the student radio station, WNUR. Margaret can be reached at
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