Schools are reopening in countries around the world in response to a substantial body of evidence that children are largely unaffected by Covid-19 and minimally contagious when they get infected. Experts and policymakers abroad also acknowledge that school closures perpetuate a long list of known harms to children.
Yet, oddly, the US is following a divergent path.
Governors from both parties throughout the United States have already mandated or recommended school closures for the remainder of the academic year, and many districts may not even open in the fall. The chancellor of New York City schools recently put the odds of bringing kids back in September at only 50/50. This approach is all the more illogical given that many states are already starting to reopen workplaces, stores and other public areas frequented by those who are most at risk: adults.
The precise role children play in both contracting and transmitting the virus is still unknown, and the subject of debate among experts. A recent article in the New York Times asserted that “cases could soar” if schools were to reopen any time soon. The claim (as stated there) rested on two recent studies: an unpublished—and widely contested—analysis of viral loads; and a modeling study based on contact surveys. Speculations such as these, based on a connecting of the dots, may prove to be correct. But most of the empirical evidence thus far points to the contrary. Not only do American politicians’ insistence on keeping schools closed put them increasingly at odds with other nations, it redoubles the policy’s well-established social costs. As it stands, children appear to be bearing an undue burden for society.
From early on in the pandemic there were indications that children, miraculously, weren’t suffering from Covid-19 to anywhere near the extent as adults. A report summary of 72,314 cases by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Feb. 24, noted that just 1 percent of patients were under ten years old, and another 1 percent were aged 10 to 19. Further, there were zero deaths in the youngest cohort. Certainly children can become quite sick with Covid-19, as recent reports of a potentially related inflammatory syndrome indicate, and even die from from the disease. But considering the untold millions of people exposed to this virus, such outcomes have been extremely rare. In the main, as time has passed, the evidence that children are almost universally spared has only gotten stronger. According to the latest numbers from Italy, where more than 200,000 people have been infected, just about 2 percent of cases have involved children or teenagers. Remarkably, just two out of the country’s roughly 30,000 recorded deaths from the disease involved people under the age of 19.
More recently, data from New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, shows seven deaths for those under 18 years of age, out of more than 14,000 in total. Despite these numbers, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has cited the safety of “our children and students” as one reason why schools would have to remain closed through the spring. The same justification—a need to protect students’ heath—has also been given by governors in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.
But the safety of students is not threatened, on the whole, by Covid-19. Plainly, children do not contract this disease at scale; and when they do their symptoms are very likely to be mild or nonexistent. Further, any plan to reopen schools could include exemptions for children with underlying conditions who may be more vulnerable.
A more rational concern—also cited by these governors—addresses the possibility that asymptomatic schoolchildren could end up passing the virus to their teachers, parents or other adults. But even here the balance of existing evidence suggests this worry is largely unfounded. “Children under 10 are less likely to get infected than adults, and if they get infected, they are less likely to get seriously ill,” said Kári Stefánsson, in an interview following the publication of an Icelandic study he co-authored in the New England Journal of Medicine. “What is interesting,” he continued, “is that even if children do get infected, they are less likely to transmit the disease to others than adults. We have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.”
The same conclusion has been reached by many others. A report released by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment for the Netherlands found “no indications that children younger than 12 years were the first to be infected within the family.” Rather, it remarked, “The virus is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children.” A report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease stated: “Of note, people interviewed by the Joint Mission Team could not recall episodes in which transmission occurred from a child to an adult.”