On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.
The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.
This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.
It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.
Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.
There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.
None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.