How Safe is Going Back To School? Overseas Research May Hold the Answers

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Studies from Europe, Asia, and Australia show school age kids - especially the youngest - are less prone to contracting COVID-19 and may pose a lower risk of passing the virus onto the wider community.

Much of the emerging research on the coronavirus and kids has not been peer-reviewed, but several research projects suggest opening schools with proper distancing and protective measures could have minimal effects on the overall virus numbers.

In Crepy-en-Valois, a suburb just north of Paris, French researchers studied an outbreak that swept through the community in February before any lockdown measures took effect.

Although the virus transmitted freely through the local high school, researchers found six primary schools had very little viral spread.

"The absence of well characterized viral spread in the primary school as opposed to the nearly high school suggests 6-11 year aged pupils are less contagious than teenager pupils," the study authors wrote.

Other studies around the globe have also noted the lower propensity for younger children pass the virus to other members of their household.

An analysis of 40 child infections in China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Iran found that, "whilst SARS-CoV-2 can cause mild disease in children, the data available to date suggests that children have not play a substantive role in the intro-household transmission of SARS-CoV-2."

Another research paper compared child infection rates in Finland and Sweden, two countries that employed different strategies at the height of the pandemic. 

Schools in Finland closed between March 18 and May 13 while Sweden’s schools remained open. Despite that, the authors concluded, “Closing of schools had no measurable effect on the number of cases of COVID-19 among children.” 

In a study published by Australia’s National Center for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, researchers found, “SARS-CoV-2 transmission in children in schools appears considerably less than seen for other respiratory viruses, such as influenza.”

“We're still trying to figure out just how contagious children are, but the best available evidence suggests they are less contagious than adults,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Christakis told the I-Team he is concerned keeping physical classrooms closed to 5-day learning could negatively impact kids’ social, emotional, and education development - especially with research suggesting limited benefit to public health.“

We are subjecting a large number of children to learning deficits which will have long term implications,” Christakis said. “I don't know why we would put opening bars and restaurants ahead of opening schools. I think we should declare students, particularly young students an essential workforce. And put in place the kinds of measures we've put in place for our grocery workers."

In New York City, where current plans include offering most students between 2 and 3 days a week of in-person learning, City Hall remains uneasy about a return to full-time classroom education.

“There is not enough data on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission to be able to safely fully reopen in the City that has been the epicenter of the outbreak,” said City Hall spokeswoman Miranda Barbot. “We’re not going to compromise the health and safety of New Yorkers—including the students, teachers, custodians, nurses, and family members of students attending school.”

Teachers unions across the nation have also expressed opposition toward full-time school reopening without far more government funding for additional classroom space, protective gear, and staff to make physical distancing feasible.And despite research showing coronavirus rarely transmits from and between children, there are examples where it does. 

According to Syracuse.com, sixteen people, including six kids, were sickened after a coronavirus outbreak at a licensed in-home daycare last month in upstate New York.Even supporters of reopening classrooms admit there will be isolated cases and flare-ups, if and when schools are fully reopened. But some parents say the unknown risk of infection - is outweighed by the known risks to their kids’ social and emotional development.

"It’s going to destroy them mentally,” said Susan Pugliese, a mother of two special needs students on Staten Island. Pugliese has organized a group of likeminded parents to publicly fight back against continued school closures.

“If summer camps can be open and day cares can be opened and other things can be going on, why can my child that has 6 children in her classroom not be getting the education she deserves?” asked Susan Guido, another parent of a special needs student.

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