The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out forcefully in favor of schools reopening for in-person learning. Yet, fear about bringing kids back to school continues to grow. The following is an outline of scientific data and medical opinion that suggest such fears are unwarranted and that the harm caused by keeping schools closed far outweighs any risk that reopening poses to either students or staff. It has been revised and updated since its original publication on June 25, 2020 and will be updated again as more information becomes available.
The risk to students is low:
- The risks to school aged children from COVID-19 are low.
- According to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH): Children appear to have lower attack rates than adults (meaning that, if exposed to COVID-19, they are less likely to become infected). MGH also reports that transmission from students to other students is rare.
- CNN: The vast majority of children who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and recover easily.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends reopening, children and adolescents under 18 years old account for less than 0.1 percent of COVID-19-related deaths (as of July 17, 2020). More children and teens under the age of 18 died from influenza in each of the last five flu seasons than have died from COVID-19 this year.
- Likewise, cumulative COVID-19 hospitalization rates for those under age 18 are lower than cumulative influenza hospitalization rates during recent flu seasons.
- The Lancet: Although there is a possible emerging inflammatory syndrome associated with COVID-19, similar to Kawasaki disease, the association with Kawasaki disease is small, and the chances of kids’ contracting this new form of the disease appears to be extremely low.
The risk to teachers and staff is low, particularly in the lower grades:
- MGH: transmission from students to staff is rare and will likely be even more rare with risk mitigation protocols in place.
- CDC: “the rate of infection … from students to teachers has been low.”
- Children do not commonly spread the virus (either to each other or to adults)
Keeping kids home is unlikely to save lives — or even slow the spread of the virus:
- A study from Sweden concludes that opening up schools and kindergartens is unlikely to impact COVID-19 mortality rates in older people.
- The Lancet reports that school closures may lead to a greater number of deaths than they prevent.
- JAMA Pediatrics: Modeling studies indicate that school closures do not reduce the spread of COVID-19. This modeling is confirmed by data from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Singapore that suggest that school closures did not help to control the epidemic there.
- Studies from Ireland and Australia have found no evidence of secondary transmission of COVID-19 from school children.
- Mother Jones reports on a study that suggests school closures may increase the spread of the virus. This is in contrast to other measures, such as restaurant bans, which do seem effective in slowing the spread. Mother Jones produced the below graphic to summarize the data:
For the most part, daycare centers and schools that are open have not seen a spike in cases:
- NPR: “YMCA of the USA and New York City’s Department of Education have been caring for, collectively, tens of thousands of children [of essential workers] since March, and both tell NPR they have no reports of coronavirus clusters or outbreaks.”
- ProPublica: “We called [New Jersey’s] Department of Health to see if COVID-19 had been spreading within the child care centers that had opened April 1 to serve children of essential workers. There have been no reports of outbreaks of two or more cases, an official said.”
- Brown University economist Emily Oster: As of Tuesday, June 22, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children at 916 day care centers, serving more than 20,000 children, were confirmed infected with the coronavirus.
- International data is consistent with these findings. A study conducted in Iceland showed that child care facilities and schools were not the source of chains of infection.
- New York Times: Norway and Denmark both reopened their schools in April, a month or so after they were closed. Neither country has seen a significant increase in cases
- On June 10, an article in Early Learning Nation noted that, “[t]wenty-two European Union member states have now re-opened child cares and schools in some capacity, and none have had COVID cases spike as a result.”
- In Israel, however, the virus infected more than 200 students and staff after schools reopened in early May and lifted limits on class size a few weeks later.
School closures place children and teens at considerable risk for a wide array of physical, emotional, and social harms:
- In an open letter published in June, more than 1500 members of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) warned that continued closures risk “scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.”
- Quarantining and school closures increase the risk of anxiety and depression in children and teens that may last for up to 9 years after their period of social isolation ends.
- School closures have increased online video game usage, which is associated with both obesity and depression.
- School closures and lockdowns put some children at greater risk of online exploitation, family abuse, and/or neglect.
- The absence of in-person peer interaction can interfere with the basic developmental needs of teenagers.
- The absence of in person schooling for young children negatively affect the development of children’s social skills, including comprehension of nonverbal cues, and increases the likelihood of sensory, motor and cognitive issues.
School closures put children and teens at academic risk and exacerbate educational disparities:
- Remote learning last school year wiped out much academic progress, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains. The average student may have already lost as much as a third of the expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of the expected progress in math.
- The slide is worse in disadvantaged communities. Researchers at Brown and Harvard found that through late April, student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes, and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes. Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities, who often need access to in person services, are at risk of falling further behind.
- Many educators are worried about the potential rise in drop out rates, particularly since there is now greater economic pressure on teens to work to help support their families. The longer schools remain closed, the harder it will be to get these kids back.
Virtual Learning is a Failure:
- In Boston, only half of students showed up for online instruction on any given day; 20 percent of them never logged on to the designated website. And in Philadelphia, roughly 57% of students attended online meetings and classes. Nationwide, teachers in two separate surveys estimated that only about 60% of their students were regularly participating or engaging in distance learning.
- Students who did participate were bored, unmotivated, and disengaged.
- Real Clear Education: “A survey of public-school students in Broward County, Florida on online learning during the lockdown found that 48% did not foresee completing their school work for the week, 45% had trouble focusing, 40% spent less than three hours per day on schoolwork, 81% joined video classes only a few days a week, and 52% didn’t feel motivated enough to do schoolwork. And that’s in a district with considerable experience with online learning.”
- Thomas B. Fordham Institute: Distance learning only works for high-achieving, self-motivated learners, and those with lots of family support at home.
- Education Week: Virtual learning raises equity concerns with respect to low-income students, English-language learners, and all others who need extra support.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, which produced the below chart, 20% of American students lack a reliable internet connection.
- The Wall Street Journal also reports that remote learning facilitates cheating.
- WSJ: “Time is not on our children’s side. With every passing day that day-care centers, nursery schools and pre-K programs remain closed, they are missing out on learning from their peers and the critical developmental window for play is closing. That has the potential to set them back in ways that will last a lifetime. “
- Mother Jones: closures have (a) little effect and (b) are not worth the major negative impact they have on students and parents.
- Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “Reopening schools this fall is an urgent national priority.”
- JAMA: school closures may lead to greater medical, economic, and social problems than those caused by the virus itself.
- Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, Seattle Children’s Hospital: “The risks posed by delaying school openings are real and sizeable, particularly for students from low-income families.”
- AAP: “COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk.”