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"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.

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Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is a science and biotech journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.
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Every weekend since January, pediatrician Cora Collette Breuner has volunteered to give the COVID-19 vaccine to individuals from age 12 to 96 in an underserved community in Washington state.

Even though the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe and effective, there's still quite a bit of hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their teenage children, says Breuner, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital and a past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Adolescence. "They have questions and they have questions," she says.

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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.
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Virus image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.

Listen to the episode:

Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is a science and biotech journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.

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.