Will reopening schools cause the nation's already simmering coronavirus pandemic to boil over? While the picture from studies and reopenings in other countries is beginning to come into focus, it's unlikely school and district leaders will have a clear answer before they have to make their own decisions for this fall.
After relatively scant research on children and the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic, there has been slowly building consensus around just a few findings: that children, particularly pre-adolescents, appear to be less likely to contract the disease; and that the majority of those that do have either mild or no symptoms. All told, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that only 5 percent of all reported cases of COVID-19 have happened in children under 18.
While hopeful, none of those findings has been particularly helpful in planning school reopenings, as they mean that fewer children are tested and we don't know as much about how likely children are to spread the disease, compared to adults. In the absence of widescale testing, researchers have relied on case studies of existing outbreaks and comparing the relative amount of viral particles in children and adults to try to compare how much they may pass on.
The last several weeks have brought a flurry of new, more school-focused findings, including:
While the studies offer somewhat mixed evidence on how infectious children may be and what role they contribute to the spread of the pandemic, they do highlight one keystone for district leaders' decisions about school reopening: Community virus rates can make a big difference in whether a school's reopening improves access to learning or spreads disease.
The journal Science found, in a review of 20 countries' school reopenings, that while requiring face masks and social distancing, and keeping students in small cohorts (so-called "panedmic pods" among some U.S. schools and parents) did reduce outbreaks, the biggest factor was the overall rate of infection circulating in the community.
Countries that reopened schools with low community infection rates, such as in Denmark, have seen overall COVID-19 rates continue to decline even after schools and daycares opened. Others, such as Israel, reopened schools amid higher community infection rates and had to shutter them after significant outbreaks.
Building public confidence could be a major challenge. As a handful of schools around the U.S. opened up for in-person instruction in recent days, at least two districts reported positive cases of COVID-19—one in Mississippi, the other in Indiana.
Photo: Corinth Elementary School students have their temperature checked by a thermal scanner as they arrive for their first day back to school in July 27 in Corinth, Miss. District officials reported four days later that a high school student in the district later tested positive for COVID-19 Source: Adam Robison/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP