Working parents are struggling with whether to send their kids back to school in the fall. Many rely on school for childcare, so they can go to work. But, kids going back to school too quickly and without the right resources may have the opposite impact.
Recent studies and events show that kids spread COVID-19 in group settings. Because young kids cannot quarantine alone, many working parents may be exposed, forced to quarantine and unable to go to work.
Kids Returning To School Does Not Automatically Mean Parents Returning To Work
We know that COVID-19 presents a lower risk to the health of kids and young adults.
But, in deciding when to reopen schools, the question is whether kids going back to school increases the chances of them bringing COVID-19 back home, effectively quarantining those in the house who would otherwise go to work?
Parents are faced with few good options. For many working parents, the ability to earn an income is tied to kids going back to school. School is the primary form of childcare for many households. And, there is no doubt that the economy cannot fully recover schools reopen.
This leaves parents wondering:
- How likely is COVID-19 to spread among young kids physically at school?
- What will happen to my ability to continue to go to work if my child is exposed to COVID-19 at school?
The Push To Bring Kids Back To School
The C.D.C. guidelines strongly favor reopening schools for on-campus learning. It emphasizes the “importance of in-person education for the development of social skills, mental health and to ensure that students don’t fall behind, adding that school closures disproportionately harm low-income and minority children along with those living with disabilities.”
In pushing to reopen schools, the federal government has argued that kids are much less likely to spread COVID-19.
President Trump has said that kids, “don’t catch [COVID-19] easily; they don’t bring it home easily. And if they do catch it, they get better fast.”
Advocates for reopening cite a recent study from South Korea that children under age 10 years old spread the virus much less than adults do (but the risk is not zero).
Even in states like California that are experiencing a spike in cases and thus barred most schools from physically reopening in the fall, elementary schools can apply for waivers to reopen, and parents are suing to force schools to reopen.
Kids Spreading COVID-19
Both scientific evidence and real life scenarios are now showing that kids spread the virus when together.
Two new studies find that kids not only spread COVID-19 efficiently, but may be major drivers of the pandemic.
The first study, published in JAMA on July 30, reports findings from a pediatric hospital in Chicago. The study examines the concentration of the COVID-19 in the nasopharynx, or the upper region of the throat that connects to the nasal passages, of children and adults. The study reports that:
- Kids younger than 6 years old who develop mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms have 10 to 100 times as much SARS-CoV-2 in the nasopharynx as older children and adults.
- Kids ages 5 to 17 years have the same amount of virus in the nasopharynx as adults age 18 and older.
The second study, a preprint manuscript awaiting peer review, reports the results of an extensive contact tracing study conducted in Trento, an autonomous region in Northern Italy. Despite a total lockdown that began in March that included the closure of schools, Trento case numbers rose exponentially. The manuscript reports that:
- Kids younger than 15 years old spread the virus more efficiently than adults, and “were more likely to infect household members.” The risk of transmission was 22.4%, more than double the 11% contagion rate of adults ages 30 to 49.
- The youngest participants were the most efficient spreaders; the younger the child, the higher the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in their nasal passages (consistent with the Chicago study).
Translation: kids at school who cough, sneeze, or scream, have as much as 10 to 100 times more virus in their nasal passages than adults, and may be more efficient spreaders as a result. This is consistent with the South Korea study that kids age 10 to 19 are more likely than other age groups to spread the COVID-19 in their household.
Overnight camp and recent school reopening experiences match these studies:
- Elwood Junior Senior High School in Indiana made it only two days into the school year before at least one staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Several other staff members had been in close contact are in quarantine, and the school closed the campus and shifted to remote learning the rest of the week.
- Greenfield Central Junior High School, also in Indiana, made it only hours into the first day of classes before it got a call from the county health department that a student who had walked the halls and sat in various classrooms had tested positive.
- Within a week of starting overnight camp in Georgia, a teenage counselor developed chills and went home. The camp of about 600 campers and staff started sending campers home the next day, and shut down a few days later. Even so, the C.D.C. reports that nearly half the camp tested positive.
This isn’t surprising, given the high estimated likelihood of kids bringing COVID-19 back to school from the start.
Exposure At School Means Quarantine From Work
Businesses are guided by the C.D.C. and states to conduct daily health screenings of workers who come to work, to slow the spread. Federal law permits these inquiries as COVID-19 is a “direct threat” to the workplace.
These worker health screenings consist of temperature checks and questions about a workers symptoms and possible exposure to others who may be positive.
As a result, a worker living with a child who was infected or exposed to COVID-19 at school will likely have to notify their employer. Given that the C.D.C. requires that “individuals exposed to people with known or suspected COVID-19 should be quickly identified and quarantined” workers will be forced out of work while quarantined.
Workers forced to stay home on quarantine are not guaranteed paid leave the entire time. The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act paid leave component has a cap, and many workers have already exhausted paid leave benefits. This may exacerbate the fallout of reopening a school to soon: the household loses income because of the child’s exposure at school.
An in-person school learning environment may be one of the most “essential” functions of our society. Kids returning to school as soon as it is safe for the particular community should be the highest priority of parents, administrators, and teachers.
However, simply rushing kids back to school, so their parents get back to work, to get one step closer to back to “normal” may backfire.
Reopening schools where there is a spike in cases and without quick, accurate, and widespread testing may lead to inevitable spread, exposures, quarantines, and disruption to households and businesses.