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“More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don’t get it and transmit it themselves, so we should be in a posture of — the default should be getting back to school kids in person, in the classroom.”

— Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in an interview on “The Conservative Circus” (iHeart radio), July 16

Our eyes popped out when we first heard this comment by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as she pressed the administration’s case for reopening schools in the fall with in-person classes.

Could children actually be “stoppers” of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus? That would be great news — if true. The interruption of school threatens to create a learning deficit — and many parents may find it difficult to return to work if children are not in classes.

Let’s examine DeVos’s evidence that children do not transmit the coronavirus, as it appears to be influencing administration policy. President Trump echoed her claim in a news briefing Wednesday evening. “They do say that [children] don’t transmit very easily, and a lot of people are saying they don’t transmit,” he said. “They don’t bring it home with them. They don’t catch it easily; they don’t bring it home easily.”

The Facts

An Education Department spokesperson supplied four reports from around the world:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics: Evidence suggests that children don’t contract or spread the virus the way adults do, in contrast to how they spread influenza.
  • New South Wales, Australia: Eighteen infected people who had contact with nearly 900 people resulted in only two additional infections, with “no evidence of children infecting teachers.”
  • France: An infected 9-year-old in France came into contact with 172 people while attending three ski schools, and none of them — not even the child’s siblings — appeared to contract the virus.
  • Saxony, Germany: A study (in German) found no evidence that schoolchildren play a role in spreading the virus, with a researcher quoted in a news report as saying that “children may even act as a brake on infection.”

“We’re mainly looking at the German study — one of the people who helped run it is the one who first said that kids can act as ‘brakes’ on virus transmission,” the Education Department spokesperson said.

Well, there’s a problem with that. The German study has not been peer-reviewed; it is still in preprint review by the Lancet, meaning it should not be used to guide clinical practice.

Moreover, the German researchers told The Fact Checker that the results do not apply to a country such as the United States, where infections have been soaring. Germany, by contrast, is among the countries that are considered to have handled the outbreak with skill and diligence, keeping infections per million people relatively low.

“Our results depict a situation with low infection rates after the initial transmission peak is under control,” Jakob Armann, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at University Children’s Hospital in Dresden and co-author of the study, said in an email. “If you have rising infection rates — as in the United States currently — putting people in close contact will obviously lead to transmission of respiratory viruses as SARS-CoV-2.”

The key, he said, is to get the situation under control, as most Europeans countries have. Then “there is a way to safely reopen schools and schoolchildren are not ‘hidden’ hotspots of transmission.”

Reinhard Berner, Armann’s colleague, made the “brake” comment, but Armann said his quote was “widely exaggerated through in the media.” (The phrase does not appear in the study.)

“The point he was trying to make is that these findings are in contrast to the earlier assumptions that children will spread the virus to a much higher degree than adults,” Armann said. “We are not trying to argue that children do not spread the virus at all, and you are absolutely right that in high-infection communities, children will get infected and will transmit to close contacts.”

It’s easy to find studies and news reports that contradict DeVos’s assertion:

  • South Korea: A large study using contact tracing found that children ages 10 to 19 can spread the virus at least as much as adults do; children younger than 10 were half as likely to transmit the virus, but there was still a risk. One caveat is that researchers were unable to determine the route of transmission and relatively few children were studied. But Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, referenced this study in an interview with Washington Post Live on July 24 when asked about DeVos’s statement.
  • Israel: At least 1,335 students and 691 staff members contracted the coronavirus after Israel reopened its entire school system without restrictions on May 17, believing it had beaten the virus. The spike in infections among the children spread to the general population, according to epidemiological surveys by Israel’s Health Ministry. As of mid-July, 125 schools and 258 kindergartens have been closed because of infections. (One study suggested that the disease spread quickly at a high school, affecting more than 260 people, during a heat wave, when mask rules were suspended and air conditioning was in constant use.)
  • New York: An asymptomatic child attending family in-home day care in DeWitt led to four families getting sick, including six children at the day care, one sibling, seven parents and two grandmothers.

In the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 241,904 child coronavirus cases were reported as of July 16, with children representing 8 percent of all cases. There was a 46 percent increase in child cases from July 2 to July 16, although mortality remains low, with 24 states reporting no child deaths so far.

Although there have been relatively few deaths of children — fewer than 70, according to state reports — about 3.3 million adults ages 65 and older live in a household with school-age children, according to a July 16 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s about 6 percent of all seniors in the United States, who have a greater chance of becoming severely ill from the virus if a child becomes infected.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said that too often people have latched on to studies that later turn out to be flawed. “There have been so many studies, sometimes with strident conclusions, only to be blown out of the water later” when conditions change, he said. “The bottom-line message is that school-age kids will see transmissions. How much is unclear, but they definitely are not brakes.”

After we communicated the response from the German researchers, we received this statement from the Education Department: “The science remains on the side of reopening schools, even at the highest levels of the medical field. As the Secretary has said, we have to think about the impact on the whole child if schools continue to remain closed. In addition to a quality education, students need the peer-to-peer interaction, access to mental health care, and nutritious food that schools provide. As she has said previously, decisions on schools fully reopening will need to be made on case-by-case basis depending on the local health situation, and the goal should be fully reopening in the fall.”

The Pinocchio Test

As a Cabinet secretary, DeVos has a responsibility to provide accurate information to the public. It’s easy to pick and choose medical studies to assert a political point. But it’s irresponsible to mainly rely on a news account of a report that has not even been peer-reviewed yet — and that concerns a low-infection environment not yet applicable to the United States.

There is evidence that children may not get as sick as adults, and younger children especially may not transmit the virus as easily. From an educational perspective, certainly it would be better to provide in-class instruction than to continue remote learning. But to claim that children actually may stop the spread of the disease shows a stunning lack of due diligence.

DeVos earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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The Washington Post Fact Checker is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.