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COVID-19 in Schools: Are Students Safe?

This past year has brought about an unprecedented shift in the lives of working parents, one that many continue to grapple with today. The Center for American Progress reports that 75% of working parents currently have a parent staying home with a child during working hours. The situation has resulted in 700,000 fewer parents of children under 5 in the workforce than there were a year ago. In response, government officials are working hard to resume in-person learning. However, as school districts prepare to bring students back to the classroom, one question looms over our collective heads: Are students safe returning to school? There are arguments on both sides of this debate, so let’s look at what the experts are saying.

Children are less infectious

The question of children’s safety in school is one of the things that the University of California San Francisco is researching. UCSF Pediatrician Naomi Bardac, who has been studying methods to control the spread of COVID-19, said that while children tend to spread the cold and flu around their households, research is showing that children are less infectious when it comes to COVID-19. It’s a fact supported by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, which reports that only 4% of household outbreaks have been caused by children.

When young children get sick, they have milder symptoms

While the data shows that children are less likely to contract COVID-19, there are cases where children have been infected. However, as Harvard Medical School explains, evidence shows that children who do test positive for COVID-19 have milder symptoms or no symptoms at all. Severe complications are also less common, though children with underlying health conditions may still be at an increased risk for severe illness.

School outbreaks are happening

Despite the data showing that children are less of a safety concern and pose less of a risk of spreading COVID-19, there continue to be reports of outbreaks at schools that resume in-person teaching. News outlets in Colorado reported that as of February 24th, there were 741 active COVID-19 outbreaks in the state. While that number decreased from the week prior, the number of outbreaks remains alarming. In fact, data from the Institute of Disease Modeling shows that community infection rates mirror school infection rates.

The older the child, the higher the risk

Part of the problem with trying to universally address student safety around COVID-19 is that the level of concern depends on the age of the students in question. As children get older, there is an increased risk for their ability to catch and spread COVID-19. The World Health Organization reports that students younger than 9 were less susceptible and less infectious than those 10 to 14 years in age. This is one of the reasons that the CDC has different recommendations for phased introduction of in-person learning based on grade levels. One of the reasons that those studying the disease believe this to be the case is because the virus enters the body through a cell called ACE2 receptors, which children produce fewer of than adults. Thus, the risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19 is higher at middle and high schools compared to elementary schools.

Protocols for Reopening Schools Safely

For schools making a plan to reopen and return to in-person learning, the CDC has guidelines for helping to ensure the transition is a safe one for all involved. Their detailed plan includes proactive measures for mitigating infection such as requiring masks, situating desks at least six feet apart, and properly ventilating classrooms. The CDC also offers advice for how administrators, staff, and teachers can stay safe. They also advise schools to have a plan for testing and contact training should a positive COVID-19 case happen at their school.

Risk of Not Returning to In-Person Learning

Healthcare experts such as the WHO, CDC, and the American Medical Association all agree that in-person learning can take place — and they argue that it should. The WHO reports that disruption to instruction negatively affects a child’s ability to learn, leads to a loss of school-based services, and correlates to an increased risk of teen pregnancy. Furthermore, those most negatively affected by the closures are minorities, refugees, and children with disabilities.

Regardless of what the federal government, state officials, or your school district announces in terms of in-person learning, it’s the responsibility of each parent to stay informed and decide what the safest route is. In order to do that, you have to consider the arguments from health experts and use your best judgment in determining what is right for your child.