Jun 20, 2020 - Health

Reopening schools is a coronavirus wildcard

Illustration of backpack with circles

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

We still don’t know much about the role of children — and thus, schools and day care centers — in spreading the novel coronavirus, inserting a huge wildcard into America’s national return-to-work strategy.

Why it matters: Even as workplaces reopen with new social distancing measures in place, millions of parents will only be able to return if their children have somewhere to go. Alternatively, if schools end up being a breeding ground for new infections, the virus will easily then spread within households.

"It's tough with schools, because if you close down schools, that means the parents who rely on the schools to take care of children during the day have a difficulty," said Anthony Fauci, the director of the infectious diseases center at the National Institutes of Health.

  • "It's not a simple issue of opening and closing the schools. You want to balance nicely to make sure the most important thing is safety…but there [are] also social considerations that make the issue complicated," Fauci said.

The big picture: Although children themselves rarely get severe cases of the coronavirus, countries worldwide have struggled to keep it from spreading among people who live together. The problem is particularly acute among multigenerational households.

  • Respiratory viruses in general spread easily from child to child, and thus from household to household.
  • “If you put people together in a mixed environment, if you have essentially a daily mass gathering of children with teachers, you’re providing opportunities for transmission of the virus,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor at Columbia University.
  • “I think it’s very unwise in the current situation for us to play with fire and reopen schools,” he added. And if it turns out that there is some seasonality to the virus, and it gets worse in the fall, that “double whammy will just amplify things.”

Yes, but: We don’t know how risky reopening schools is, because we don’t have much data on how likely kids are to get infected or to transmit the virus. The risk level will also vary for each community, based on that community’s level of overall spread.

  • Limited data suggests that kids are less likely to get infected by the virus than adults. But they also tend to have more daily contacts than adults do.
  • There’s a lack of evidence of children being the initial case within their families and then spreading it to other members. But “the absence of data is not that comforting since kids have largely been out of circulation and out of schools,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Other countries are, of course, in the same boat as the U.S. But that doesn’t mean we can just do what they do, because unlike most Asian and European countries, we haven’t drastically reduced our number of new daily cases.

  • “Other countries that seem to be successful, like New Zealand, they drove their covid cases way down before allowing kids to return to school,” Cicero said. “I don’t think our US experience is necessarily comparable to other countries where they had less community spread.”

Between the lines: The dilemma is particularly acute within minority populations, which are more at risk of severe cases of the coronavirus, being hit harder by the coronavirus economy and l falling further behind educationally while kids stay home.

  • Bringing the virus into the home could be deadly, particularly as minorities are more likely to live in multigenerational households. But continuing to stay home to care for children who aren’t in school could be financially unfeasible for parents.

What we’re watching: Summer camps, summer schools and day care centers that have already reopened will likely provide additional data points heading into the fall.

  • After that, “what may happen unfortunately is natural experiments, where certain jurisdictions are just going to bowl ahead…and others are going to have an attitude [of], ‘no, we're going to prioritize the health and safety of our population,’” Shaman said.

The bottom line: “I think we owe it to teachers and schools and kids and families of those children to be investing in the research to try and get answers to those questions,” Cicero said. “And we don’t have an Operation Warp Speed to figure out the questions for kids.”

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