Coronavirus cases are surging in this country and worldwide, yet in many places, schools remain open. Why?
Whether or not to send students to school has been a continuous balancing act. Children miss out if they stay home. Their health, education, and safety could be in jeopardy. But they can also get sick by going to school, sometimes seriously.
Determining what’s safe for students, teachers, families, and the community when community cases are low is tedious. But when Covid-19 is surging, shouldn’t schools close? Won’t students mingling together mean that they will pass the virus into the community?
Here’s information about the surge and what various countries are doing about school openings.
Do Students Pass the Virus to the Community?
On October 9, The Atlantic reported that Brown University Economist Emily Oster said Covid-19 school transmission into the community was low.
Predictions about school openings hurting the broader community seem to have been overblown… In places such as Florida, preliminary data haven’t shown big community spikes as a result of school openings. Rates in Georgia have continued to decline over the past month. And although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I’ve read many stories about outbreaks at universities, and vanishingly few about outbreaks at the K–12 level.
The New York Times reported “Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to Fuel Coronavirus Surges, Scientists Say” on October 22, stating that research indicated that transmission of Covid-19 into the community would likely not ignite more cases if safety protocols are in place. But they rely on various age cutoffs, and that gets confusing.
Contrary to those reports, a Lancet study published on October 22, showed that school closures do reduce virus transmission.
Individual NPIs [Non-pharmaceutical interventions] including school closure, workplace closure, public events ban, ban on gatherings of more than ten people, requirements to stay at home, and internal movement limits, are associated with reduced transmission of SARS-CoV-2, but the effect of introducing and lifting these NPIs is delayed by 1–3 weeks, with this delay being longer when lifting NPIs.
This was followed by the Independent reporting “Coronavirus: Reopening schools causes R transmission rate to surge.” The research shows that the number of persons who get infected from any given infectious person increases.
In the United States, Covid-19 cases are high, and news outlets like CNN reported that cases among children are soaring at unprecedented levels.
The surge is based on numbers recently released on tracking information by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). They believe they have undercounted cases in children.
While children represented only 11.1% of all cases in states reporting cases by age, over 853,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. This includes nearly 200,000 new cases in children during the month of October.
In England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown to prevent a “medical and moral disaster” for the NHS, but schools, colleges, and universities could stay open.
Five children have died of Covid-19 in the U.K. according to a report from The Guardian from last June, and out of the 71 under-18s who needed intensive care at that time, most survived.
Cases have gone up in England since the end of August, especially in children ages 7 to 11.
Schools stay open in France as cases of Covid-19 increase in that country.
From The Washington Post:
“Not everything should be destroyed by the health situation,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper. “We must be vigilant, but not forget the educational and social imperatives, nor deviate from our two objectives: improving the educational level of each child and reducing inequalities.”
Canada opened schools despite the surges of the disease. A mom states:
They’re [children] super excited, but now that the numbers go up, then I start to question my own decisions. It can be hard to make sense of the local coronavirus data, never mind the broader torrent of sometimes conflicting information on children, schools, and covid-19. It’s so stressful. . . . I have to be a mom, an epidemiologist, a teacher — everything.
Canadians express concern about the spread of the virus and they seem focused on school ventilation as key. But colder weather and closed windows create problems.
There is broad agreement among experts that driving down transmission in the community outside schools is the most important factor in keeping students safe inside schools. As case counts balloon in major Canadian cities and infections enter classrooms, parents and experts alike are concerned about how long schools will stay open.
Schools opened in Italy with the understanding that there would be coronavirus cases in children. In most places, there’s an assumption that children will get sick.
Authorities insist schools should remain open as far as possible, but each decision is taken on a case-by-case basis by local authorities and depends on the spread of the virus, the level of contact, the layout of the school buildings and many other factors.
School officials in Germany try to keep schools open even though they’re having community lockdowns. According to one report, in Germany, they’re not blaming schools for the surge in Covid-19 cases. They blame summer holiday travel, parties, and dining out.
The New York Times recently looked at why schools were staying open in Europe and noted about Germany:
Many teachers in Germany worry that although precautions have been drawn up, not all schools are following them. They fear the political will to keep children in classrooms will prevail even in regions where health authorities recommend moving to distance-learning because the infection rate is too high.
Covid is so bad in Ireland, Prime Minister Micheal Martin called for a nationwide stay at home order, but the schools stayed open.
… schools and childcare facilities are to remain open “because we cannot and will not allow our children and young people’s futures to be another victim of this disease.”
According to U.S. News and World Report, schools in Sri Lanka scheduled schools to open on November 9, but now they are closed until November 23 due to two clusters. They have 7,856 confirmed cases, and 275 of those cases had been during the previous 24 hours. The total caseload for the pandemic stands at 11,335, with 21 deaths from COVID-19.
Sri Lanka has had 11,335 cases of Covid-19 and with 21 deaths from the disease.
Covid-19 is creating havoc worldwide, and how school openings are contributing to the pandemic will likely generate continued research.
In the meantime, it seems like remote learning is the safest way for schools to proceed. Communities should continue to mobilize to reach out to children who are isolated, whose parents must work, and to provide outside assistance to students with mental health difficulties.
References Behind the Paywall
Mandavilli, A. (2020, Oct. 22) Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to fuel Coronavirus Surges, Scientists Say. The New York Times.
McAuley, J. (2020, Sept.1) Students in France Return to Schools, Even As Covid-19 cases soar. The Washington Post.
Eddy, M. (2020, Oct. 29) Why Is Europe Keeping Its Schools Open, Despite New Lockdowns? The New York Times.