Fewer children seem to get infected by the coronavirus, and those who do only have mild symptoms. However, the question remains of whether they can pass it on to adults, continuing the chain of transmission.
Several countries, including Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all either reopened schools or are looking to reopen them in the next few weeks. In some of these countries, the rate of community transmission is low enough that they can take the risk. However, epidemiologists who've reviewed the results of the studies warn that reopening schools in other countries, like the United States, could nudge the outbreak's reproduction number -- the number of new infections estimated to come from a single case -- to dangerous levels.
In a study published last week in the journal Science, researchers found that children were about a third as susceptible to coronavirus infections compared to adults. However, when schools were opened, the children had about three times as many contacts as adults. This means they have three times as many chances to get infected, evening out the results.
The researchers stated that based on their data, which covered the cities of Wuhan and Shanghai, while closing schools on their own would not be enough to stop the outbreak, it can reduce the surge by about 40 to 60 percent and slow the epidemic's course.
“My simulation shows that yes, if you reopen the schools, you’ll see a big increase in the reproduction number, which is exactly what you don’t want,” said Marco Ajelli, one of the researchers involved in the study.
The second study, led by Dr. Christian Drosten, was more straightforward. Dr. Drosten and his team in Berlin tested 60,000 people, both children and adults. They found that children who test positive harbor just as much or even more of the virus as adults do. The researchers presume that this makes them just as infectious.
Dr. Drosten's team also analyzed a group of 47 infected children between the ages of one and 11. Of these, 15 had an underlying condition or were hospitalized, but the remaining were mostly symptom-free. Their testing showed that the asymptomatic children had viral loads that were just as high or higher than those of symptomatic children, or even adults.
“In this cloud of children, there are these few children that have a virus concentration that is sky-high,” stated Dr. Drosten said.
He also noted that there a significant body of work exists that suggests that a person's viral load tracks closely with how infectious they are. With this, he said that he is “a bit reluctant to happily recommend to politicians that we can now reopen day cares and schools.”
Dr. Drosten's study has yet to undergo peer review. He posted it on his website due to the ongoing discussion about reopening schools in Germany.
While the studies posited that reopening schools will allow the virus to spread, some experts have stated that the decision to reopen schools cannot be based solely on trying to prevent transmission.
“I think we have to take a holistic view of the impact of school closures on kids and our families,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I do worry at some point, the accumulated harms from the measures may exceed the harm to the kids from the virus.”
E-learning approaches may temporarily provide children with a routine, she said, “but any parent will tell you it’s not really learning.” Many children also backslide during the summer months, adding more months to that might permanently hurt them, especially those who're already struggling. (Related: Leftists push for homeschooling ban amid coronavirus crisis – so now they don't want children getting ANY education?.)
Dr. Nuzzo also noted that children need the social aspects of school and that, for some of them, home may not even be a safe place.
“I’m not saying we need to absolutely rip off the Band-aid and reopen schools tomorrow,” she said, “but we have to consider these other endpoints.”