As schools around the country return for the 2020-2021 academic year, discussions surrounding COVID-19 safety have reached a fever pitch.
Do children spread the coronavirus? How vulnerable are they to the novel virus? What about teachers? These questions are being discussed in more than 13,000 school districts across America, and they’re not likely to disappear anytime soon.
Nearly eight months into the pandemic, what have we learned about the coronavirus and children, and how might that information influence our plans for this school year?
The Numbers: Children and COVID-19
To date, more than 338,000 children have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in America. It’s a relatively small fraction of the 5,000,000 total Americans who have tested positive, but it’s still a large and ever-growing number. More significantly, nearly one-third of those cases occurred in the last two weeks of July alone.
In late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an update for parents regarding the risk of COVID-19 for children. “Parents are understandably concerned about the safety of their children at school in the wake of COVID-19. The best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms.”
The CDC went on to cite that children under 18 account for less than 7 percent of COVID-19 cases nationally and 0.1 percent of COVID-19 related deaths. However, many children may be asymptomatic or show only vague symptoms that don’t warrant a COVID-19 test. This means the true rate of coronavirus infection among children could possibly be much higher. Plus, the potential for risk is undeniable. More than 60 children have died from coronavirus complications to date.
Government Funded Study Aims to Learn More
The data helps to illustrate trends, but scientists still have more to learn. “The bottom line is we just don’t know yet the degree to which children can transmit the virus,” explains Dr. Tina Hartert of Vanderbilt University.
Hartert is leading a government-funded study to learn more about the COVID-19 infection and transmission process among children. Existing evidence suggests that children are less likely to become infected than adults, and some data even supports the theory that young children don’t spread the virus much, if at all.
Through Hartert’s study, 2,000 families in 11 U.S cities will use at-home COVID-19 tests and mail them to study organizers. Those participants then answer questions about symptoms and daily routines and habits. Hartert and her team will use all of the data they collect to investigate the behavior of COVID-19 among children.
What Does This Mean For School?
There’s no easy answer or solution for the 2020-2021 school year. Some districts have opted for fully virtual education while others are implementing hybrid learning models that blend socially-distanced in-person learning with virtual education at home.
However, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both advocate “that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Both organizations recognize that it may not be possible in areas with widespread circulation of COVID-19, but they cite social and emotional skill development, safety, nutrition, physical exercise, and academic instruction as essential reasons to support in-person learning whenever possible.