Scientists know that children are less likely to become seriously sick from the novel coronavirus than adults, and are more likely to be asymptomatic, but what remains unknown is children’s role in spreading the disease.
If schools reopen this fall, kids will be spending their time with adult teachers and then head home to their families, some of which may be vulnerable to coronavirus infection. Now, new research sheds light on the damage teens could do in terms of spreading COVID-19 to others.
A study of about 59,000 people who had contact with a coronavirus-positive person in South Korea says school-aged children can spread the virus just as well as adults do.
Children between 0 and 9 years old were the least likely to spread the virus to others — about half that of adults — while tweens and teens between 10 and 19 years of age had similar abilities to spread the disease — more than double that of adults in their 20s, according to the study.
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The paper was published last week in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
“I think there’s a case for staying closed, which is largely rooted in public health — and, in particular, concerns about health risks for staff, who are at a much higher risk than students — and the general sense that if schools open, there will be more movement around, and that may itself trigger more cases,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, told Politico.
Last week, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “science should not stand in the way” of plans to reopen schools, USA Today reported.
McEnany: “The president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open…When he says open, he means open and full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.” https://t.co/Nj065CIsxp pic.twitter.com/sJEAJPg2Jy
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 16, 2020
McEnany cited a study that showed the risk of serious illness in children is less than the seasonal flu, according to the outlet, but experts worry leaders are looking past the fact that kids can still contract the virus and spread it to others, especially in regions experiencing rapid spread.
“I fear that there has been this sense that kids just won’t get infected or don’t get infected in the same way as adults and that, therefore, they’re almost like a bubbled population,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times. “There will be transmission. What we have to do is accept that now and include that in our plans.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says returning to school is necessary for healthy development, but the group says science does not support the move at this time.
“Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the group said this month in a statement. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings.”
Some say keeping schools closed does more harm than good
Time away from school means interrupted learning, social isolation and in some cases depression and domestic abuse for children across the country.
Some international studies have shown that kids rarely begin COVID-19 spread in their households, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adults make up the majority of cases; however, transmission is more rapid in America, experts say, so comparisons are not always accurate.
One doctor, who is a father of three school-aged children, believes schools should reopen, but with appropriate measures taken to keep everyone safe.
“Will someone in America contract COVID-19 from their sick child? Yes. Should I structure my life around such a rare occurrence? I do not think so,” Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of epidemiology and an infectious disease physician at Boston University School of Medicine, wrote for Vox.
“We could be wrong about schools, but we cannot afford to wait to find out for certain. We need school-based COVID-19 symptom screening, testing, contact tracing and isolation. Opening without a plan to test is irresponsible and a gamble with our children’s health.”
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Linas says keeping kids home for another year means they will have missed 12% of their total education, and “missing 12% of school time is the same as missing 22 days of school in a single year.”
While reopening is still under hot debate, others contemplate how location matters when deciding how or when to reopen.
“Florida has said its schools will open in the first weeks of August. That’s [about two weeks] from now. That’s crazy,” Oster told Politico. “Based on where we are now, if Florida just opens the doors to schools and has everybody back in a normal way, just with a few masks, then a bunch of people are going to have COVID-19.”
United Teachers Los Angeles said they fear those in favor of reopening schools are “motivated by reigniting the economy,” ignoring the public health crisis at hand. Only until a vaccine or cure is available will reopening schools without infection prevention be safe, they said in a statement released this month.