With COVID, When Can Schools Re-open?

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Every school year, children catch illnesses at school, and so do teachers and parents. Occasionally an outbreak causes schools to close for a time, say during a flu epidemic that is causing a lot of absenteeism. But never before have all schools been closed for months—even though COVID-19 has the unusual feature that children seldom either get sick from it or transmit it to others.

The CDC reported 14 deaths involving COVID-19 in children age 5-14 between Feb 1 and Jul 11. There were 2,173 deaths from all causes in that age group in a population of 41 million. As seen in the graph below, deaths in older age groups rose sharply after Mar 21, reaching a peak on Apr 18, and have been declining since. A recent surge of “cases” (positive PCR tests) has not so far caused a bump in deaths, which have returned to the baseline of expected mortality. By that metric, the pandemic is over.

Scary reports of “child COVID syndrome” are probably Kawasaki disease, which has been associated with many viral syndromes. There are about 5,000 hospitalizations per year attributed to this, and the number of cases has not been increasing.

Some teachers are reluctant to return, and some  parents are also hesitant to send their children back to school. But if it is not safe to re-open schools now, when will it ever be safe? Who will believe it is safe if children are forced to wear masks and stay 6 ft apart?

The hiatus in schooling could lead to far-reaching changes. Parents may be more aware of what their children are learning—and  not learning. Taxpayers may ask: if online learning works, why do we need so many teachers? Parents who find they are able to work from home and avoid an exhausting, expensive commute may want to keep doing that—and home-school their children. Several states report a sharp uptick in interest.

Giving parents more choices could be a positive outcome. But the long-term consequences of keeping children in fearful isolation will worsen, the longer the uncertainty continues. It is possible that the disruption has not prevented a single COVID-19 death.

For further information on COVID-19 diagnosis and testing, see Civil Defense Perspectives, January 2020, and on the surge or “second wave” see AAPS News, July 2020.