As parents nationwide puzzle out a summer break upended by the pandemic and local school districts roll out their plans for the fall, many are now faced with tough choices. In just two examples, the Nashville, Tennessee public school system recently offered parents a choice between sending their children back to school full time or keeping them at home for online classes, while Fairfax County, Virginia public schools are making families choose between fully online schooling or a “hybrid” that combines in-person and remote instruction.
While weighing the needs of educating their children versus possibly exposing their family to COVID-19, how should parents consider these options?
As experts in the fields of education and pediatric health — and parents ourselves — we echo the American Academy of Pediatrics in saying that “the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” We are not saying that all students — particularly those with underlying medical conditions — should rush back into schools as normal. But, based on the best available evidence, here is what we know so far.
Kids are unlikely to be virus hosts
At a time when so much about the virus remains unknown, it is encouraging — and frankly, a relief — that early research shows kids are far less likely to be virus hosts, spreaders or victims. Since March, mounting evidence has shown that children, especially young children, are much less likely to spread the virus than adults. Furthermore, studies from the U.S., Israel, and the Netherlands have shown that children are about half as likely to become infected as adults.
Children are also less likely to be hospitalized or to succumb to the virus. As of June 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 28 children in the U.S. under the age of 15 have died from COVID-19 or about 0.03% of all American deaths from COVID-19. In contrast, the same data showed that pneumonia and the seasonal flu killed 3-6 times as many children in the U.S. this year. And while parents may be worried their children will bring the virus home from school, studies are finding that it is adults who are more likely to transfer the virus, including from parents to their children.
We don’t mean to minimize these tragedies, but the choice to stay home carries other risks to children, including neglect, abuse, or food insecurity. In fact, by attempting to protect our children from all health risks, we may be exposing them to other risks by interrupting their education.
Educational disruptions can have lasting emotional and academic consequences, especially for younger students. In Maryland, researchers looked at the effects on children for time off from school for “snow days” and found significant learning losses, especially among younger students. In Argentina, a wave of teacher strikes in the early 1980s caused primary school students to miss an average of 88 days of learning.Researchers found these students were less likely to complete high school or college, completed fewer years of education overall, and had lower employment rates and earnings. The negative effects were long-term but also intergenerational: Compared to their peers, the children of the strike-affected students were more likely to be held back in school.
There are, in fact, successful examples of schools remaining open even as the virus spreads across a community. In the U.S., YMCAs and the New York City’s Department of Education have been operating daycare centers for tens of thousands of young children since March, with no sign of outbreaks among students or staff. Preliminary data as of earlier this week on COVID-19 spread at childcare centers showed a student infection rate of 0.16% and a staff infection rate of 1.09%, both of which are much lower than the overall population.
At least get the younger kids back to school
If older students are more able to handle a remote learning environment and more likely to catch the virus, we should focus on getting our youngest and most disadvantaged children back to full-time school first. France, for example, is reopening its elementary and middle schools but not its high schools.
Not all of these decisions should rest on individual school districts, either. There needs to be broader discussion right now among policymakers about how we balance the need to educate children while supporting working families during the pandemic.