• November 28, 2021

The Case for Reopening Schools

A more rational concern—also cited by these governors—addresses the possibility that asymptomatic schoolchildren could end up passing the virus to their teachers, parents, or other adults. But even here the balance of existing evidence suggests this worry is largely unfounded. “Children under 10 are less likely to get infected than adults, and if they get infected, they are less likely to get seriously ill,” said Kári Stefánsson, in an interview following the publication of an Icelandic study he coauthored in The New England Journal of Medicine. “What is interesting,” he continued, “is that even if children do get infected, they are less likely to transmit the disease to others than adults. We have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.”

The same conclusion has been reached by many others. A report released by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment for the Netherlands found “no indications that children younger than 12 years were the first to be infected within the family.” Rather, it remarked, “The virus is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children.” A report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease stated: “Of note, people interviewed by the Joint Mission Team could not recall episodes in which transmission occurred from a child to an adult.”

A joint press release in late April from three associations of French pediatricians stated that the “risk of infection for adults is mainly due to contact between adults themselves (teachers, staff, and parents grouped out of school).” It encouraged the return to school even for children with chronic diseases, as “delaying this return appears to be of no benefit for the management of their illness.” A reportExtra resources
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from early April by the British Columbia Center for Disease Control and Ministry of Health stated: “There is no documented evidence of child-to-adult transmission. There are no documented cases of children bringing an infection into the home, from school or otherwise.”

The journal Clinical Infectious Diseases published a case study of a boy with Covid-19 who, despite attending three different schools (elementary, language, and a Montessori) and a ski club, and interacting with 172 classmates and teachers while symptomatic, did not transmit the virus to anyone. Australia’s National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance published a report with similarly encouraging results of a study in New South Wales: From March to mid-April, 18 individuals in 15 schools were confirmed as Covid-19 cases. Among the 735 students and 128 staff members who were in close contact with those initial cases, just two children became infected. Even more strikingly, “no teacher or staff member contracted Covid-19 from any of the initial school cases,” the report stated.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Epidemiology, like most medical disciplines, is not only a science but an art of interpretation and methodology. It’s true there are conflicting data on this question. One of the studies cited in the recent New York Times article, for example, suggests that while children are much less likely than adults to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, that’s canceled out by the fact that they end up being in close contact with many more people overall. But given the aggregate of findings, it’s no wonder that a growing list of countries have determined that opening schools is appropriate.

Dutch, French, and Swiss schools are all set to partially reopen this week. “This decision was made in line with health authorities of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), who consider the opening of schools to be sufficiently safe,” an article in the Brussels Times reported, “as children play a relatively small role in the spread of the virus.” In Switzerland, kids are already allowed to hug their grandparents, per the country’s head of infectious disease, Daniel Koch, who said scientists “now know young children don’t transmit the virus.” Danish authorities announced the same policy a few days later. Australia, China, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Japan, and Norway have either reopened schools already, or will begin to do so very shortly.

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