Although scientists initially feared that community spread might be triggered by kids heading back to school, the latest numbers might serve to offer cautious optimism.

By Maressa Brown
October 23, 2020
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Kids across the country have gone back to school in a variety of ways—remotely, in a hybrid fashion, or entirely in-person. Every school district has had to make a decision based on their own analysis of local COVID-19 numbers and safety measures they felt confident implementing. Still, scientists feared that any in-person learning could lead to an uptick in cases. Now, initial data suggests that schools, especially elementary schools, don't seem to be at the crux of community transmission.

The data, reported by the New York Times, stems from random testing in the U.S. and Britain. It also bears noting that the numbers are far from conclusive, and there were potential flaws in their collection and analysis. Still, they've offered infectious disease experts cautious optimism.

Brooke Nichols, an infectious disease modeler at the Boston University School of Public Health, told the Times, "The more and more data that I see, the more comfortable I am that children are not, in fact, driving transmission, especially in school settings."

This isn't to say that parents and educators should dismiss the fact that children do get ill from the novel coronavirus—and they can transmit it, too. But researchers are now focused on how often the latter happens, and the Times notes that "the bulk of evidence" now suggests only limited transmission from young children to adults. Less definitive is the risk among tweens and teens.

Given the latest findings, some experts are cautiously urging school districts to consider offering in-person learning for elementary school-aged kids. Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times, "I think there's a pretty good base of evidence now that schools can open safely in the presence of strong safety plans, and even at higher levels of case incidence than we had suspected."

That said, it's not as though the initial, highly cautious game plan to bring kids back remotely or in a hybrid fashion was some sort of punishment or disregard for parents. It was required to ensure that teachers and kids were both adequately shielded from transmission.

Now that we know more, schools might be able to adapt based on more targeted, data-informed guidelines. To that end, Dr. Rubin and his colleagues have introduced new guidelines for when to close and reopen schools.

They suggest schools make a call based on trends versus absolute numbers of positive cases. In other words, administrators and parents can't expect there to be zero risk, but they can expect the existing risk to be managed by safety measures. The researchers also urge communities where transmission is high to zero in on closing other indoor spaces like bars and restaurants as opposed to schools.

Ultimately, doing so could set the stage for kids to learn more effectively and safely while reducing COVID spread. For parents, educators, and everyone in a community, that sounds like a win-win.

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