With a growing number of children infected by COVID-19, is it safe for kids to go back to school?

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, sixth-grader Salih Tas wears a mask as he has his temperature checked by a teacher during a STEM summer camp in Wylie, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, sixth-grader Salih Tas wears a mask as he has his temperature checked by a teacher during a STEM summer camp in Wylie, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

It’s a huge, huge topic with parents, teachers and school staff right now: Is it safe for kids to have in-person schooling in the middle of a global pandemic?

The decision has been left up to states and even individual school systems, and there’s a wide range of options that are planned for the fall. California Governor Gavin Newsom released strict guidance on Friday stating that public schools in counties being monitored for rising coronavirus cases cannot hold in-person classes and requiring school staff and students in grades 3 to 12 to wear face coverings. Others, like the state of Florida, are requiring all school districts to open for in-person instruction in the fall. And then there are in-between options, like A/B schedules. Some states, like Delaware, don’t even plan to make a decision until August.

Despite what is decided in their school district, people still have questions about whether it’s safe — and with good reason: Children are not immune to COVID-19.

In Florida, which is currently a hotspot for COVID-19, 31 percent of children tested for the virus were positive. But Florida isn’t the only place where children are being infected. In California, where cases of the virus are soaring, health department data show that nearly 10 percent of overall COVID-19 cases are in children. And, in Arizona and Washington state, 11 percent of COVID-19 cases are in those younger than 20.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that, while some children and infants have been sick with COVID-19, “adults make up most of the known cases to date.”

There have been reports of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19, though, which is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, the CDC says. Among other things, it can lead to trouble breathing, confusion and pain. In very rare cases, it has proven fatal.

Despite possible health concerns, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which gives guidance to pediatricians in the U.S., recommended on its website in late June that students return to in-person learning in the fall. The argument: The physical, mental and academic benefits of returning to learning in person are greater than the risk children may face from COVID-19. 

But in-person schooling seems to directly contradict the CDC’s advice for protecting children from the virus, which includes keeping children at least six feet from others and limiting the time they spend around other children. “If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk,” the CDC says online.

So, what should parents think?

This is a hot-button topic, even among medical professionals. “This is very controversial,” Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “School districts should do their best at implementing social distancing protocols, have students wear masks, do temperature checks, and send home kids with fevers.”

Watkins says it’s “unclear” at this time if there will be increased community spread of the virus after children go back to in-person schooling.

But Dr. Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., thinks in-person schooling should happen. “There’s no scientifically proven reason for kids not to go back to school,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Science shows that children do not have serious health effects from this virus. They do not usually transmit the virus to adults. In fact, the adults usually give it to them.”

He cites an epidemiological study from New South Wales, Australia, that found between March to mid-April, 18 people (nine students and nine staff) in 15 schools had confirmed cases of COVID-19. All of them had the opportunity to transmit the virus to more people, including 735 students and 128 staff who were in were close contact with those initial cases. However, the study found, no teacher or staff member contracted COVID-19 from any of the initial school cases. One child from an elementary school and one child from a high school may have contracted COVID-19 from the initial cases at their schools, the researchers found.

Another study from France’s Institut Pasteur studied 1,340 people in a town outside of Paris and found three probable cases of COVID-19 among children that didn’t lead to more infections in other students or teachers. The researchers discovered that 61 percent of the parents of infected kids had the virus, compared with about 7 percent of parents of healthy ones. That, the researchers said, suggested that the parents gave it to the kids.  

Here’s the tricky part: There isn’t much data to analyze given that many schools closed after COVID-19 started spreading in communities. Even the researchers who conducted the Institut Pasteur study said that more research on schools is needed because of the small number of cases that were available to study.

The data from other countries is also helpful “up to a point,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “They have largely controlled spread — much better than we have here, where it’s largely uncontrolled,” he says. “That’s quite different.” 

There are also a lot of different factors to consider in determining whether in-person learning is safe in a particular area, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.“It’s going to be challenging in places like parts of Florida and Texas where the outbreaks are out of control,” he says. However, he says, “Some schools in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have opened with no problem. It may end up being a school district by school district decision depending on what’s happening in the community and what they can do to make it more compliant with guidance.”

Ultimately, experts say, it’s important for public health experts to monitor conditions as children go back to school. “We will be watching that with intense care because we really don’t know whether children are transmitters or to what extent they are,” Schaffner says.

Still, Adalja says, some cases are to be expected. “Schools are going to have cases and exposures, so it’s really important that they have a plan going forward,” Adalja says. “We will probably have a lot of real-time learning.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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