Authorities often say, “We are following the science,” when making policy decisions about COVID-19. However, this comment is rarely followed-up with specifics from any actual peer-reviewed science. This is certainly true about the debate regarding sending children back to school in the fall.
Some school administrators and politicians have argued that it would be unsafe to open school to in-person instruction in the fall, and that we have to “follow the science” for when it will be appropriate for students to return to their classrooms. OK, let’s do that; let’s “follow the science” and see where it leads regarding the safety of children attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no shortage of legitimate peer-reviewed research on the topic. Combining the search terms “COVID-19” with “children” and “school closure” resulted in 143 articles in PubMed, a database of the National Library of Medicine. The journal citations that accompany my statements are “open access,” meaning that anyone can view the article online in its entirety without a fee or journal subscription.
First, it is important to note that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that, “For children (0-17 years), cumulative COVID-19 hospitalization rates are much lower than cumulative influenza hospitalization rates.” (CDC. COVIDView, July 10).
Plenty of research supports this notion that children are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 than from the flu. In a seven-country study that included the United States, the authors concluded that COVID-19 mortality is less severe than the flu in children even though many children were already vaccinated against the flu (Bhopal et al. Public Health. 2020; 185:19-20).
It is now widely accepted in the scientific and medical literature that children rarely get COVID-19, and when they do it is usually a milder disease than adults (Ludvigsson. Acta Paediatrica, International Journal of Paediatrics. 2020; 109:1088-1095).
What about the adults that will be exposed to the kids when they return to school (e.g., teachers, aids, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.)? Aren’t the kids putting them at risk?
No. Not only are children less likely to get COVID-19 and become seriously ill with it, but they are also poor transmitters of the virus; children are not super spreaders (Munro & Faust. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2020; 105:618-619).
Although children can transmit COVID-19, it is unlikely for them to be the cause of outbreaks and “opening up schools is unlikely to impact COVID-19 mortality rates in older people” (Ludvigsson. Acta Paediatrica, International Journal of Paediatrics. 2020; in press).
Modeling research suggests that school closures alone would be much less effective than other social distancing strategies for preventing deaths (Viner et al. The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. 2020; 4:397-404).
Further, some researchers estimate that closing schools in the fall would actually increase total mortality because many health care workers would have to take time off to care for their children at home (Bayham & Fenichel. The Lancet Public Health. 2020; 5:e271-e278).
Pediatricians from around the world have urged governments to reopen schools. More than 20 countries have actually “followed the science,” and their kids are back in the classroom. To the school board members and policy-makers that claim they are “following the science” when advocating for school closures … Really? What science would that be, specifically?
School closure for fear of COVID-19 is not consistent with peer-reviewed, scientific published research.
“Follow the science,” and get back to in-person instruction in the classroom.
Dale R. Wagner, Ph.D., is professor of exercise physiology in the Kinesiology & Health Science Department at Utah State University, Logan.