Should schools reopen amid pandemic? Scientists warn against it as children may play hidden role in virus spread
US President Donald Trump reportedly called for lifting school closures, bringing the debate on the topic back in the news.
Helping the debate gain more traction are recent studies, which have cautioned against such a move. Throwing light on the role that children play in the spread of the disease, researchers suggest that children might be as infectious as the elders.
"We have to caution against an unlimited reopening of schools and kindergartens in the present situation, with a widely susceptible population and the necessity to keep transmission rates low," the author of one study and a leading German virologist, Christian Drosten, wrote. “Children may be as infectious as adults," he added.
Trump's suggestion to reopen schools might stem from a notion that children do not often develop severe infections. However, experts think that children could be playing a hidden part in the spread, as they usually tend to develop mild or no symptoms at all.
"Although all age groups can be infected with this virus and develop severe disease, at this time, it seems that children more often develop the mild disease. Children may play a role in transmission since infection is hard to identify. We should be vigilant about how we interact with our children and also avoid children interacting with other children, which may facilitate transmission," Dr Alyson A Kelvin, from Dalhousie University, had earlier told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
What are the new studies saying?
Drosten's study concluded that children could be as infectious as others after comparing the amount of virus or virus load in the body.
The team looked at nearly 60,000 patients of all age groups. Of them, over 4,000 tested positive for the virus. They then compared the viral load in patients aged between 10 and 100 years.
Regardless of age, all the participants had similar levels of the virus, the study found. Because of this, the team believes the disease is equally contagious across all groups.
Another Chinese study also supported Drosten's findings. The researchers studied COVID-19 cases in Shenzhen: 391 patients and 1286 close contacts. Their analysis showed that children and adults appear to be equally at risk of infection. About 7.4% of the children contracted the disease, compared to the population average of 6·6%.
"Children are at a similar risk of infection to the general population, although less likely to have severe symptoms; hence they should be considered in analyses of transmission and control," the authors wrote in their study.
One study makes a case for social distancing and school closure after it found these measures could help control the spread. The study included participants — confirmed positive patients and their close contacts — from Wuhan and Shanghai.
While social distancing is key to controlling the outbreak, school closures can help delay it, they said.
Still, the data is not clear
Earlier this month, a group of scientists released a preprint study assessing the role that children play in household outbreaks. It found that children are less likely to contribute to the transmission, suggesting that children were unlikely to be the source of the infection in many of the reported household outbreaks.
Of the 31 outbreaks reported in households, children may have set off three, compared to 59% of household outbreaks during the bird flu.
These findings hold implications on the reopening of schools. "In the debate about school closures, it was frequently being assumed that children are the source of viral transmission," the authors of the study, Dr Asha Bowen from Perth Children’s Hospital and Dr Kristy Short from The University of Queensland, had earlier told MEAWW. The assumption, according to them, draws from information from other respiratory viruses.
Many have expressed concerns over closures because children are at the risk of losing their right to education and are also missing out on free or subsidized food provided in schools.
Other experts are calling for larger studies. "This lack of clarity on transmission produces uncertainty for planning to reopen schools," Prof Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who was not involved in the latest research, told The Guardian. "Both keeping schools closed and reopening them carry degrees of risk in terms of population harms. Further data on susceptibility and transmission from population-based studies are urgently needed," he added.