As the country focuses on when and how school districts will open for the new academic year, a new study says that 24 percent of teachers in the country — or 1.47 million — have a health condition that puts them at higher risk of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus.

Really? Well, it all depends on which teachers you include in such an exercise.

The graphic above comes from the new report by KFF, the Kaiser Family Foundation, that is being cited repeatedly in the media. If you looked at it and thought that 24 percent, or 1.47 million, of full- and part-time teachers working in elementary and secondary schools (at least before the pandemic) were at risk, then you would be wrong.

The figures above would mean that there are around 6 million working in regular schools — but there aren’t, at least according to the U.S. Education Department.

According to the department’s National Center for Education Statistics, there were in 2017-2018 3.3 million full- and part-time traditional public school teachers, 205,600 public charter school teachers, and 509,200 private school teachers. That totals a little more than 4 million teachers.

I asked Gary Claxton, one of the authors of the report, about the data, and he said the researchers included in their analysis other people identified as working in “educational services."

Still, Claxton and the other authors of the KFF report frame their findings around the context of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the opening of schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. The report starts this way:

As the nation continues to struggle to contain the spread of coronavirus, there is considerable debate about when and how to reopen schools. Education is primarily a state and local concern, and although they have received mixed guidance from federal officials, the decisions over reopening will be made at the state and local level.
One of the myriad of issues these officials will face will be how to keep school employees safe at work, particularly those who are at increased risk of serious illness if they become infected with coronavirus.

The researchers, Claxton said, used both data from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To come up with their findings, they analyzed these risk factors: diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (which includes asthma), heart disease, obesity and a functional limitation due to cancer. In addition, the CDC says all people over age 65 are considered to be at increased risk.

The KFF report says the following about how teachers were defined for purposes of the survey:

We define teachers as individuals whose occupation is “primary, secondary, and special education school teachers” or “other teachers and instructors,” and are employed in the “Education Services Industries” industry. Only teachers who are currently working, looking for work or on a temporary absence such as a planned vacation, maternity leave or temporary medical leave were included.

Claxton said the researchers included substitute teachers, instructors for night class and others who are classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as working in “educational services.”

The bureau itself describes “educational services” as being delivered by teachers or instructors not only in regular schools but other settings as well. It says:

Educational services are usually delivered by teachers or instructors that explain, tell, demonstrate, supervise, and direct learning. Instruction is imparted in diverse settings, such as educational institutions, the workplace, or the home, and through diverse means, such as correspondence, television, the Internet, or other electronic and distance-learning methods.

The authors noted that “the challenge for school systems and for teachers in particular is the sheer volume of traffic and tight quarters in many school environments, which may make social distancing a significant challenge in many settings.” They also said:

For higher-risk teachers, failure to achieve safe working conditions could have very serious results. Given the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in a crowded school environment, these at-risk teachers may be reluctant to return to their schools until infection rates fall to much lower levels. At the same time, teaching is not a particularly high-paying profession, so many teachers may feel economically compelled to return to their schools if they reopen, even if those teachers do not feel safe.”