kids teens

The likely dominant mode of aerosol transmission cannot be ignored in school settings.

(© visoot/Adobe)

Never has the prospect of "back to school" seemed so ominous as it does in 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases climb steadily in nearly every state, the prospect of in-person classes are filling students, parents, and faculty alike with a corresponding sense of dread.

The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue.

The decision to resume classes at primary, secondary, and collegiate levels is not one that should be regarded lightly, particularly as coronavirus cases skyrocket across the United States.

What should be a measured, data-driven discussion that weighs risks and benefits has been derailed by political talking points. President Trump has been steadily advocating for an unfettered return to the classroom, often through imperative "OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!" tweets. In July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold funding from schools that did not reopen for full-time, in-person classes, despite not having the authority to do so. Like so many public health issues, opening schools in the midst of a generational pandemic has been politicized to the point that the question of whether it is safe to do so has been obscured and confounded. However, this question still deserves to be examined based on evidence.

What We Know About Kids and COVID-19

Some arguments for returning to in-person education have focused on the fact that children and young adults are less susceptible to severe disease. In some cases, people have stated that children cannot be infected, pointing to countries that have resumed in-person education with no associated outbreaks. However, those countries had extremely low community transmission and robust testing and surveillance.

The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue: children can be infected, they can become sick, and, in rare cases, they can die. Children can also transmit the virus to others, especially if they are in prolonged proximity to them. A Georgia sleepaway camp was the site of at least 260 cases among mostly children and teenagers, some as young as 6 years old. Children have been shown to shed infectious virus in their nasal secretions and have viral loads comparable to adults. Children can unquestionably be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spread it to others.

The more data emerges, the more it appears that both primary and secondary schools and universities alike are conducive environments for super-spreading. Mitigating these risks depends heavily on individual schools' ability to enforce reduction measures. So far, the evidence demonstrates that in most cases, schools are unable to adequately protect students or staff. A school superintendent from a small district in Arizona recently described an outbreak that occurred among staff prior to in-person classes resuming. Schools that have opened so far have almost immediately reported new clusters of cases among students or staff.

This is because it is impossible to completely eliminate risk even with the most thoughtful mitigation measures when community transmission is high. Risk can be reduced, but the greater the likelihood that someone will be exposed in the community, the greater the risk they might pass the virus to others on campus or in the classroom.

There are still many unknowns about SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but some environments are known risks for virus transmission: enclosed spaces with crowds of people in close proximity over extended durations. Transmission is thought to occur predominantly through inhaled aerosols or droplets containing SARS-CoV-2, which are produced through common school activities such as breathing, speaking, or singing. Masks reduce but do not eliminate the production of these aerosols. Implementing universal mask-wearing and physical distancing guidelines will furthermore be extraordinarily challenging for very young children.

Smaller particle aerosols can remain suspended in the air and accumulate over time. In an enclosed space where people are gathering, such as a classroom, this renders risk mitigation measures such as physical distancing and masks ineffective. Many classrooms at all levels of education are not conducive to improving ventilation through low-cost measures such as opening windows, much less installing costly air filtration systems.

As a risk reduction measure, ventilation greatly depends on factors like window placement, window type, room size, room occupancy, building HVAC systems, and overall airflow. There isn't much hard data on the specific effects of ventilation on virus transmission, and the models that support ventilation rely on assumptions based on scant experimental evidence that doesn't account for virologic parameters.

There is also no data about how effective air filtration or UV systems would be for SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk reduction, so it's hard to say if this would result in a meaningful risk reduction or not. We don't have enough data outside of a hospital setting to support that ventilation and/or filtration would significantly reduce risk, and it's impractical (and most likely impossible in most schools) to implement hospital ventilation systems, which would likely require massive remodeling of existing HVAC infrastructure. In a close contact situation, the risk reduction might be minimal anyway since it's difficult to avoid exposure to respiratory aerosols and droplets a person is exhaling.

You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity.

Efforts to resume in-person education depend heavily on school health and safety plans, which often rely on self-reporting of symptoms due to insufficient testing capacity. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 can be readily transmitted by pre-symptomatic individuals who may be unaware that they are sick, making testing an essential component of any such plan. Primary and secondary schools are faced with limited access to testing and no funds to support it. Even in institutions that include a testing component in their reopening plans, this is still too infrequent to support the full student body returning to campus.

Economic Conflicts of Interest

Rebecca Harrison, a PhD candidate at Cornell University serving on the campus reopening committee, is concerned that her institution's plan places too much faith in testing capacity and is over-reliant on untested models. Harrison says that, as a result, students are being implicitly encouraged to return to campus and "very little has been done to actively encourage students who are safe and able to stay home, to actually stay home."

Harrison also is concerned that her institution "presumably hopes to draw students back from the safety of their parents' basements to (re)join the residential campus experience ... and drive revenue." This is a legitimate concern. Some schools may be actively thwarting safety plans in place to protect students based on financial incentives. Student athletes at Colorado State have alleged that football coaches told them not to report COVID-19 symptoms and are manipulating contact tracing reports.

Public primary and secondary schools are not dependent on student athletics for revenue, but nonetheless are susceptible to state and federal policies that tie reopening to budgets. If schools are forced to make decisions based on a balance sheet, rather than the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff, they will implement health and safety plans that are inadequate. Schools will become ground zero for new clusters of cases.

Looking Ahead: When Will Schools Be Able to Open Again?

One crucial measure is the percent positivity rate in the local community, the number of positive tests based on all the tests that are done. Some states, like California, have implemented policies guiding the reopening of schools that depend in part on a local community's percent positivity rate falling under 8 percent, among other benchmarks including the rate of new daily cases. Currently, statewide, test positivity is below 7%, with an average of 3 new daily cases per 1000 people per day. However, the California department of health acknowledges that new cases per day are underreported. There are 6.3 million students in the California public school system, suggesting that at any given time, there could be nearly 20,000 students who might be contagious, without accounting for presymptomatic teachers and staff. In the classroom environment, just one of those positive cases could spread the virus to many people in one day despite masks, distancing, and ventilation.

You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity. Only with rapid identification and isolation of new cases, followed by contact tracing and quarantine, can we break chains of transmission and prevent further spread in the school and the larger community.

None of these safety concerns diminish the many harms associated with the sudden and haphazard way remote learning has been implemented. Online education has not been effective in many cases and is difficult to implement equitably. Young children, in particular, are deprived of the essential social and intellectual development they would normally get in a classroom with teachers and their peers. Parents of young children are equally unprepared and unable to provide full-time instruction. Our federal leadership's catastrophic failure to contain the pandemic like other countries has put us in this terrible position, where we must choose between learning or spreading a deadly pathogen.

Blame aside, parents, educators, and administrators must decide whether to resume in-person classes this fall. Those decisions should be based on evidence, not on politics or economics. The data clearly shows that community transmission is out of control throughout most of the country. Thus, we ignore the risk of school outbreaks at our peril.

[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: 5 Key Questions to Consider Before Sending Your Child Back to School.]

Angela Rasmussen
Dr. Angela Rasmussen uses systems biology techniques to interrogate the host response to viral infection. She has studied a huge range of viral pathogens, from the “common cold” (rhinovirus) to Ebola virus to highly pathogenic avian influenza virus to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. By combining current classical approaches to modeling infection and pathogenesis with sequencing technology and machine learning, Dr. Rasmussen and her colleagues and collaborators have identified new host mechanisms by which viruses cause disease.

Consider community, school district policies, family health, risks/benefits, and necessity of schools before making the difficult decision.

(© puhimec/Adobe)

[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to several experts: "Under what circumstances would you send a child back to school, given that the virus is not going away anytime soon?"]

It is August. The start date of school is quickly approaching. Decisions must be made about whether to send our children back. As a physician, a public health researcher, and the mother of two school-aged children, I have few clear answers.

To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19.

Let me start with the obvious. My kids, and all kids, deserve a safe, in-person school year. We know the data on the adverse effects of school closure on kids, particularly for those who are already vulnerable. I also know, on a personal level, that distance learning is no substitute for in-person schooling. Homeschooling may be great for those with the privilege to do it, but I - like many Americans - am unable to quit my job, and children need more than a screen to learn.

Moreover, safe school reopening should not be an impossible dream. I and many other physicians, teachers, and scientists have described the bare minimum that we need to safely reopen schools: a stable, low rate of COVID-19 in the community; funding and mandates for basic public health precautions (like universal masking and small, stable classes) in the schools; and easy access to testing for kids and teachers. This has been achieved, successfully, in other countries.

Unfortunately, the United States has squandered its opportunity to do right by families. Across our country, rates of COVID-19 are rising. Few states have been able to sustain a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent - the maximum that most of us, in the public health world, would tolerate. Delays in testing are rampant. Systemic under-funding of public schools means that many schools simply can't afford to put basic public health measures in place. Worst, science denialism (and the spread of quack conspiracy theories online) means that many communities are fighting even the most basic of safety precautions.

To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19. This data increases the risk calculus. Our kids are not immune, and neither are we.

Given that the necessary societal interventions simply have not happened, most American families are therefore left making an individual choice: do I send my kid to school? Or not? There are five key questions for parents to ponder when making the difficult choice about what to do.

First, we must look at our community. Knowing that testing is difficult to obtain, a true estimate of community prevalence of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. But with a test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, it's safe to assume that in a school of 500 people, at least 1 will be positive for COVID-19. That is too high for safety. Whether or not the local government does the right thing, I would not send my child to in-person school if my community had these high rates of test positivity.

Second, we must look at our school district's policies. Will the school mandate masks? Are they cohorting students and teachers in small, stable groups? Do they have contact tracing and isolation policies in place for when a student or teacher inevitably tests positive? Do they have procedures to protect vulnerable teachers and staff? If not, I would not send my child to school. If the district is doing all of the above, I would consider it.

Third, we must look at the health profile of our own kids and families. If my child had chronic medical issues, or if I lived with my elderly parents or were myself at high risk of severe disease, I would not send my child to in-person school.

It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October.

Fourth, we must do the difficult, ethical weighing of the non-zero risk of infection (even in the safest communities) with the needs of our children. Even in low-prevalence states, there will be infections in the school setting. That said, the small risk of a severe infection may be outweighed by the social, emotional, and financial risk of keeping a child home. This decision must be made on a family-by-family basis. I know my answer; but I cannot provide this answer for others.

Finally, we must call attention to the fact that many kids and families have no options. There are far too many American children who literally depend on their school system for physical, nutritional, emotional, and academic safety. There are too many parents who have no way to earn an income and keep their kids safe without in-person learning. If anyone deserves to be prioritized for in-person schooling, it should be them. (And yes, we should also work to fix the social safety net that leaves these children high and dry.)

As I write this on August 2nd, 2020, I am planning to send my two children back to our public schools for in-person education. We have low rates of infection in our community, we have masking and stable cohorts in place, and my family is relatively healthy. We also depend on the schools to keep my children safe and engaged while I'm working in the ER! I will not hesitate, however, to pull my children out of school should any of these considerations change, if local test positivity rates go up, or if my children report that masking is not the norm in the classroom.

And sadly, I expect that this discussion will soon be a moot point. We continue to fail as a nation at basic public health policies. It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October. Our country has not shown the willpower to control the virus, leaving us all with, literally, no choice to make.

[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: Masks and Distancing Won't Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests.]

Megan L. Ranney
Dr. Megan L. Ranney is a practicing emergency physician, researcher, and advocate for innovative approaches to public health. She is Founding Director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health, where her research focuses on using technology to improve adolescent mental health and reduce violence. She is also Chief Research Officer of AFFIRM Research, the country’s leading nonprofit committed to ending the gun violence epidemic through a non-partisan public health approach, and Co-Founder of GetUsPPE.org, a national nonprofit that gets donated personal protective equipment to healthcare workers in need. She is a Fellow of the fifth class of the Aspen Institute’s Health Innovators Fellowship Program.
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Kids' immune systems come into contact with so many antigens every day that extra cleaning and disinfecting won't harm them, experts say.

(Photo credit: © Юрий Красильников/Adobe)

Cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning in Frank Mosco's household during the COVID-19 pandemic. There's a protocol for everything he and his two teenage daughters do.

Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic.

"We wipe down every package that comes into the house and the items inside," says Mosco, a technologist and social justice activist in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. "If it's a fruit or vegetable, I use vinegar and water, or water and soap. Then we throw out the boxes, clean up the table, and wash our hands." Only then do they put items away.

As the novel coronavirus continues to pose an invisible threat, parents of infants to adolescents are pondering how vigorously and frequently to clean and disinfect surfaces at home and apply hand sanitizer in public. They also fret over whether there can be too much of a good thing: Will making everything as seemingly germ-free as possible reduce immunity down the road?

Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic. Every family should assess their particular risks. Factors to consider include pre-existing medical conditions, the number of people living in the same home, and whether anyone works in a hospital or other virus-prone environment, says Kari Debbink, assistant professor of biology at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland.

Constantly cleaning everything in sight isn't necessary, she explains, because coronavirus tends to spread mainly via immediate contact with respiratory droplets—catching it from surfaces is a less-likely scenario. The longer the virus stays on a surface, the less contagious it becomes.

Some parents worry that their children's growing bodies may become accustomed to an environment that is "too clean." Debbink, a virologist, offers a salient reminder: "The immune system comes into contact with many, many different antigens every day, and it is 'trained' from birth onwards to respond to pathogens. Doing a little more cleansing and disinfecting during the pandemic will not weaken the immune system."

Other experts agree. "There should be no negative outcome to properly washing your hands more frequently," says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. "Even with enhanced disinfection, kids are still getting exposed to immune-boosting microbes from playing outside, having pets, etc."

"There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age."

Applying hand sanitizer consisting of at least 60 percent alcohol helps clean hands while outdoors, says Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age," she adds, and recommends moisturizer so hands don't dry out from frequent use. Meanwhile, "cleaning and disinfecting at home also don't have an impact on antiviral immunity, in kids or adults."

With the coronavirus foremost in parents' minds, Patricia Garcia, a pediatric hospitalist, has fielded many questions about how thoroughly they should wipe, rub, scrub, or mop. As medical director of Connecticut Children's Healthy Homes Program in Hartford, which takes aim at toxins and other housing hazards, she reassures them with this mantra: "You're never going to get it perfectly sterilized, and that's okay."

To quell some of these concerns, in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of products for household use. None of these products have been specifically tested against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the agency expects these products to be effective because they have demonstrated efficacy against a different human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2 or an even harder-to-kill virus.

Many products on the list contain isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. "When using an EPA-registered disinfectant," the agency's website instructs, "follow the label directions for safe, effective use. Make sure to follow the contact time, which is the amount of time the surface should be visibly wet."

Bear in mind that not all cleaners actually disinfect, cautions Alan Woolf, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who directs its environmental health center and is a professor at Harvard Medical School. Some cleaners remove visible dirt, grease, and grime, but they don't kill viruses. Disinfectants by their nature inactivate both bacteria and viruses. "That's an important distinction," Woolf says.

Frequently touched surfaces—for instance, doorknobs, light switches, toilet-flushing levers, and countertops—should not only be cleaned, but also disinfected at least daily during a pandemic if someone in the household is sick. The objects one touches upon coming home are the ones most likely to become contaminated with viruses, experts say.

Before bringing items inside, "it might be good to clear off a counter space where they will be placed," says Debbink, the biology professor and virologist. "This way, they come into contact with as few items and surfaces as possible."

If space permits, another option would be to set aside nonperishable items. "I've heard of some families putting things in a 'mud room' and closing the door for 48 hours, some leaving things in their garage or car trunk," says Stephanie Holm, co-director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San Francisco. "Letting new purchases sit for 48 hours undisturbed would greatly reduce the number of viable viruses present."

Cleaning surfaces is recommended before disinfecting them. Holm suggests using unscented soap and microfiber cloths instead of paper towels, which can transmit bacteria and viruses from one area to another.

Soap has the power to eradicate viruses with at least 20 seconds of contact time. It attacks the coronavirus's protective coat, explains infectious diseases specialist Schultz-Cherry. "If you destroy the coat, the virus is no longer infectious. Influenza virus is also very sensitive to soap."

"The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."

For cribs, toys, and other mouth-contact surfaces, sanitizing with soap and water, not disinfectants, is advisable, says pediatrician Woolf. Fresh fruits and vegetables also can be cleaned with soap, removing dirt and pesticide residue, he adds.

"Some parents are nervous about using disinfectant on toys, which is understandable, considering many toys end up in children's mouths, so soap and water can be an alternative," says pediatrician Garcia, who recommends using hot water.

While some toys can go in the washing machine and dryer or dishwasher, others need to be cleaned by hand, with dish soap or a delicate detergent, as indicated on their labels. But toys with electrical components cannot be submerged in water, in which case consulting the EPA's list of disinfectants may be a parent's best option, she says.

Labels on the back of cleaning and disinfecting products also contain specific instructions. Not allowing a liquid to sit on a surface for the recommended time results in exposure to chemicals without even accomplishing the intended purpose of disinfection. For most household bleach-containing agents, the advisable "dwell time" is 10 minutes. "Many people don't realize this," says Holm, the environmental health specialist who also trained as a physician.

Beware of combining any type of cleaners or disinfectants that aren't already premixed. Doing so can release harmful gases into the air, she cautions.

During the pandemic, Mosco and his daughters have been very conscientious about decontaminating whatever comes through their doors. Mosco says he doesn't believe the family is overusing cleaning and disinfecting products. Although he's fastidious, he says, "a completely sterile environment is not the goal."

His mother, who was a nurse, instilled in him that exposure to some bacteria is a good thing. In turn, he "always encouraged his kids to play with animals, and to have fun in sand and dirt, with plenty of sunlight to keep their immune systems strong."

Even though a vaccine for coronavirus currently doesn't exist, parents can take some comfort in the best weapon available today to protect kids from deadly pathogens: "The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems," says virologist Rasmussen, "is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."

Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

ECOTEK students Noah Harris, 8, and Amir Muhammad, 10, doing measurements for their wind turbine project.

(Courtesy Keith Young)


When Keith Young was a young father shepherding his three children through the Detroit public school system, he felt something was missing.

The students are working on issues ranging from robotics to 3D printing to finding a cure for a rare form of cancer.

"What I'd observed was a gap between the resources that were being offered to university-level folks and in the professional ranks compared to what had been offered to kids in K-12, and in particular, the ones that were in urban and rural communities," he recalls. "There was always a Boys and Girls Camp, always a YMCA. There was never a YMCA for scientists."

Thus, the concept of ECOTEK Lab was born. Young's vision was to narrow that gap -- by financing pop-up labs for students who want to find a scientific solution to hard-to-solve problems that can be found in their own backyards.

He began in 2005, guiding his own children through foundational experiments for eventual startup companies, focusing on climate change, DNA, making biofuels and other fields of research. In addition to the labs, Young says ECOTEK has also reached young people by way of field trips, science fairs, and in-class demonstrations at schools. Young considers himself a venture capitalist, lending resources to kid and teen scientists.

Keith Young, foreground, is the founder of ECOTEK. Behind him, from left, are his daughter, Amber, son, Keith Jr., and ECOTEK students Emmanuel Jefferson and Antoine Crews.

(Courtesy Young)

In 2008, he took a group of six students from Detroit who had been researching brownfields, or previously developed land that's now vacant, and how they affect climate change; their work culminated in a research trip to Cape Town, South Africa, and participation in a conference there.

Today, he's helping transform the lives of around 250 student scientists across the country in places like Detroit, Florida and Maryland. Those students are working on issues ranging from robotics to 3D printing to finding a cure for a rare form of cancer.

Participating students do not receive a grade -- "they have to have passion to do the work." To take part, students must complete an application process and pay a small fee to use the lab, which is based on family resources, Young says. Students usually work in groups of two to three and are matched with a STEM mentor who can help when they run into research roadblocks.

In one lab in Detroit, a trio of teens is working to develop battery technology for smart mobility along with microbial fuel cells. In another lab, students focus on plant-based drug discovery. One of their projects is using plant DNA to better understand how the breast cancer gene mutation called BRCA1 works in the human body. In the African American population, about 35 percent of women with triple-negative breast cancer test positive for this mutation, and they usually don't learn of their diagnosis until the cancer has spread.

ECOTEK students have also had a slightly larger audience – the United Nations.

A third Detroit-based lab is led by Keith Young's daughter and one of ECOTEK's original students: Founder Briana Young, 23, runs a spin-off business called SmartFarms, which works on food security and developing food safety systems for urban farming using advanced drone technology and biochemical sensory systems. According to a recent report, more than 30,000 Detroiters don't have access to a full-service grocery store, and 48 percent are considered food insecure.

"We don't tell them which subjects to do – that's why [the labs] are not working on the same thing," explains Young. "We're trying to give student scientists a place to find their way."

The gap that Young noticed for urban students exists also among rural communities, and the problems they face are different. Students in a lab in Polk County, Florida, decided to tackle citrus greening, a bacterial disease that causes citrus fruit to bear bitter-tasting and underdeveloped fruit. The culprit is the Asian psyllid, a pest common to citrus plants. The problem is so pervasive that it's caused a precipitous decline in the industry, which had been a major one in Polk. At Bok Academy in Lake Wales, also in Florida, students are using drones to get an overhead view of the patterns they can detect to better understand which trees to treat and when.

"With the majority of our area dependent on citrus and various other crops, why not get students involved in problem-solving and research that's going to truly make a difference?" says David Lockett, a STEM facilitator at Bok Academy.

To this end, the students have shared their findings with scientists at the University of Florida and a research lab in Colorado.

A young woman who started in ECOTEK as an elementary-school student will now, at age 24, return to run the research arm of the company.

ECOTEK students have also had a slightly larger audience – the United Nations. The Detroit students have traveled to New York since 2013 to share their learnings with international diplomats from countries like Belize, Cuba, and Antigua.

The students' hands-on experience in the lab often inspires them to pursue academic success across the board at school. Young says that graduating students usually receive an average of $150,000 in college scholarships and score an average of 1450 on the SATs and in the 90th percentile on ACT tests.

Young plans to continue his work to develop these scientists, and after having invested "millions" of dollars of his own money, he's now seeing the fruits of his labor come full circle. A young woman who started in ECOTEK as an elementary-school student will now, at age 24, return to run the research arm of the company.

"It was," he says proudly, "a 14-year investment payback."

Nafari Vanaski

Nafari Vanaski is a freelance writer and former newspaper journalist.

A boy playing with iPal, a social robot.

(Photo credit: AvatarMind Robot Technology)


Would you leave your small child in the care of a robot for several hours a day? It may sound laughable at first, but think carefully.

"Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, a [robot caregiver] is a very attractive proposition."

Robots that can care for children would be a godsend to many parents, especially the financially strapped. In the U.S., 62 percent of women who gave birth in 2016 worked outside the home, and day care costs are often exorbitant. In California, for instance, the annual cost for day care for a single child averages over $22,000. The price is lower in some states, but it still accounts for a hefty chunk of the typical family's budget.

"We're talking about the Holy Grail of parenting," says Zoltan Istvan, a technology consultant and futurist. "Imagine a robot that could assume 70 percent to 80 percent of the caregiver's role for your child. Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, that's a very attractive proposition."

Both China and Japan are on the leading edge of employing specially designed social robots for the care of children. Due to long work schedules, shifting demographics and China's long-term (but now defunct) one-child policy, both countries have a severe shortage of family caregivers. Enter the iPal, a child-sized humanoid robot with a round head, expressive face and articulated fingers, which can keep children engaged and entertained for hours on end. According to its manufacturer, AvatarMind Robot Technology, iPal is already selling like hotcakes in Asia and is expected to be available in the U.S. within the next year. The standard version of iPal sells for $2,499, and it's not the only robot claimed to be suitable for childcare. Other robots being fine-tuned are Softbank's humanoid models Pepper and NAO, which are also considered to be child-friendly social robots.

iPal talks, dances, plays games, reads stories and plugs into social media and the internet. According to AvatarMind, over time iPal learns your child's likes and dislikes, and can independently learn more about subjects your child is interested in to boost learning. In addition, it will wake your child up in the morning and tell him when it's time to get dressed, brush his teeth or wash his hands. If your child is a diabetic, it will remind her when it's time to check her blood sugar. But iPal isn't just a fancy appliance that mechanically performs these functions; it does so with "personality."

iPal robot interacting with a boy.

(Photo credit: AvatarMind Robot Technology)

The robot has an "emotion management system" that detects your child's emotions and mirrors them (unless your child is sad, and then it tries to cheer him up). But it's not exactly like iPal has the kind of emotion chip long sought by Star Trek's android Data. What it does is emotional simulation--what some would call emotional dishonesty--considering that it doesn't actually feel anything. But research has shown that the lack of authenticity doesn't really matter when it comes to the human response to feigned emotion.

Children, and even adults, tend to respond to "emotional" robots as though they're alive and sentient even when we've seen all the wires and circuit boards that underlie their wizardry. In fact, we're hardwired to respond to them as though they are human beings in a real relationship with us.

The question is whether the relationships we develop with robots causes social maladaptation, especially among the most vulnerable among us—young children just learning how to connect and interact with others. Could a robot in fact come close to providing the authentic back-and-forth that helps children develop empathy, reciprocity, and self-esteem? Also, could steady engagement with a robot nanny diminish precious time needed for real family bonding?

It depends on whom you ask.

Because iPal is voice-activated, it frees children to learn by interacting in a way that's more natural than interacting with traditional toys, says Dr. Daniel Xiong, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at AvatarMind. "iPal is like a "real" family member with you whenever you need it," he says.

Xiong doesn't put a time limit on how long a child should interact with iPal on a daily basis. He sees the relationship between the child and the robot as healthy, though he admits that the technology needs to advance substantially before iPal could take the place of a human babysitter.

It's no coincidence that many toymakers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Sherry Turkle, a Professor of Social Studies and Science at MIT. "When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring," she has written in The Washington Post. "They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response" from the child. "And when it comes to sociable AI, nurturance is the killer app: We nurture what we love, and we love what we nurture."

What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot?

The problem is that we get lulled into thinking that we're in an actual relationship, when a robot can't possibly love us back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such lopsided relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, "Simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love."

Still, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal's manufacturers say that their robot can't replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off of work. But as robots become ever more sophisticated, they're expected to become more and more captivating, and to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care.

Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to child-robot interaction. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can't fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. Such harmful behavior could carry over into the child's human relationships.

And it turns out that communicative machines don't actually teach kids good communication skills. It's well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a child's intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and caregivers is like food for a child's growing brain. One article published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog AIBO—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.

Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied 26 ten- to 16-month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: Electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents.

The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turn-taking with parents, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it's not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child's questions, and modeling the kind of back-and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in human relationships.

Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools, but they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued.

Research suggests that the main problem of leaving children in the care of robots on a regular basis is the risk of their stunted, unhealthy emotional development. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while her self-esteem is systematically undermined.

Two of the most vocal critics of robot nannies are researchers at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., Noel and Amanda Sharkey. In an article published in the journal Interaction Studies, they claim that the overuse of childcare robots could have serious consequences for the psychological and emotional wellbeing of children.

They acknowledge that limited use of robots can have positive effects like keeping a child safe from physical harm, allowing remote monitoring and supervision by parents, keeping a child entertained, and stimulating an interest in science and engineering. But the Sharkeys see the overuse of robots as a source of emotional alienation between parents and children. Just regularly plopping a child down with a robot for hours of interaction could be a form of neglect that panders to busy parents at the cost of a child's emotional development.

Robots, the Sharkeys argue, prey upon a child's natural tendency to anthropomorphize, which sucks them into a pseudo-relationship with a machine that can never return their affection. This can be seen as a form of emotional exploitation—a machine that promises connection but can never truly deliver. Furthermore, as robots develop more intimate skills such as bathing, feeding and changing diapers, children will lose out on some of the most fundamental and precious bonding activities with their parents.

Critics say that children's natural ability to bond is prime territory for exploitation by toy and robot manufacturers, who ultimately have a commercial agenda. The Sharkeys noted one study in which a state-of-the-art robot was employed in a daycare center. The ten- to 20-month-old children bonded more deeply with the robot than with a teddy bear. It's not hard to see that starting the robot-bonding process early in life is good for robot business, as babies and toddlers graduate to increasingly sophisticated machines.

"It is possible that exclusive or near exclusive care of a child by a robot could result in cognitive and linguistic impairments," say the Sharkeys. They cite the danger of a child developing what is called in psychology a pathological attachment disorder. Attachment disorders occur when parents are unpredictable or neglectful in their emotional responsiveness. The resulting shaky bond interferes with a child's ability to feel trust, pleasure, safety, and comfort in the presence of the parent. Unhealthy patterns of attachment include "insecure attachment," a form of anxiety that arises when a child cannot trust his caregiver with meeting his emotional needs. Children with attachment disorders may anxiously avoid attachments and may not be able to experience empathy, the cornerstone of relationships. Such patterns can follow a child throughout life and infect every other relationship they have.

An example of the inadequacy of robot nannies rests on the pre-programmed emotional responses they have in their repertoires. They're designed to detect and mirror a child's emotions and do things like play a child's favorite song when he's crying or in distress. But such a response could be the height of insensitivity. It discounts and belittles what may be a child's authentic response to an upsetting turn of events, like a scraped knee from a fall. A robot playing a catchy jingle is a far cry from having Mom clean and dress the wound, and perhaps more importantly, kiss it and make it better.

Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That's the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it's not only the child that misses out on one of life's most profound experiences.

So consider buying a robot to entertain and educate your little one—just make sure you're close by for the true bonding opportunities that arrive so fast and last so fleetingly in the life of a child.

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.