Many who favor on-time reopening cite a recent large study from South Korea that found that children younger than 10 are half as likely to spread the coronavirus as adults. But half of a lot of transmission is still a lot. And the same study found that kids older than 10 transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. If one person spreads it to two or three others who then spread it to contacts at school and at home, there will almost certainly be outbreaks within a matter of weeks.
How would these outbreaks be detected? Asymptomatic cases wouldn’t be — a concern because 40 percent of people with covid-19 don’t have symptoms. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asymptomatic people are 75 percent as infectious as those with symptoms.
Let’s say that a student does show symptoms — perhaps he develops a fever while at school. The right protocol is to promptly isolate and test him. If he tests positive, everyone he has recently had close contact with should quarantine and get tested, too.
The problem is multifaceted: Given the backlog of testing, results could take 14 days. Should his entire class stay home for two weeks while awaiting this one student’s test result? Symptoms for covid-19 include cough, diarrhea, headaches, runny nose and sore throat. If any of these symptoms prompts testing and quarantining, multiple classes could be out simultaneously while awaiting test results.
This prompts additional questions: Will kids truly quarantine at home, especially if this scenario were to recur again and again? Would their siblings also need to stay home? What about their parents — how can they return to work with this much uncertainty? If parents are also asked to quarantine, will some break protocol because they need to earn a living?
At some point, school administrators may decide that there isn’t enough testing to go around. Children don’t get that sick even if they’re infected, the reasoning would go, so we can’t close down for every sniffle. This thinking, combined with limited contact-tracing capabilities, could mean that outbreaks aren’t detected until numerous adults — teachers, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, and parents and other relatives of pupils — fall ill.
I’m worried about schools taking shortcuts in an effort to reopen quickly. Reducing classroom capacity, limiting student mobility and wearing masks can substantially reduce risk. Yet President Trump has bemoaned how the CDC guidelines are “very tough,” and Vice President Pence has said that the guidelines should not prevent schools from reopening. Never mind the backward logic here (the problem is not the guidelines themselves but the inability to meet them). The issue is whether school administrators will buckle to political pressure and neglect critical safety measures, just as many governors did in cutting corners to reopen their states.
Steps can be taken now to avoid this dystopian scenario. States where infections are escalating need to revert to an earlier phase and close bars, restaurants and other indoor gathering spots. As for schools, they should begin instruction virtually and hold off on in-person plans until October; it will take at least three to four weeks for the new restrictions to have an effect and a few more weeks to ensure that the trend holds.
States with fewer infections may be able to proceed with in-person instruction if they implement proper safeguards. Many districts have thoughtful plans to bring back younger students and children with special needs first, while providing full online instruction. What about those unable to take online classes from home or who depend on schools for food and other social needs? Setting up “safe centers for online learning” in schools and other empty community spaces, as some have proposed, could be useful.
Nationally, it is beyond time to have a testing strategy that ensures that rapid tests are widespread and accessible. The CDC must also provide far more explicit guidance, including exact criteria that communities need to meet to be considered low-risk: such as test positivity of less than 5 percent, 80 percent of tests returned within 48 hours and a 14-day decline in number of cases. And Congress needs to pass an emergency education package that gives local jurisdictions funding to upgrade buildings, buy personal protective equipment and make other necessary changes.
All of these steps are hard. They require strong leadership and substantial resources. But if we don’t take these actions and schools reopen prematurely, we will effectively have an uncontrolled experiment with students and teachers as the guinea pigs. Banks and airlines have been bailed out. Surely, we can dedicate the necessary resources to help our schools, too.