COLUMBIA — The big question right now for every parent in Mississippi and really all of America is this: What in the world are schools going to do when it’s time to go back in August?
The coronavirus has created an unprecedented break in learning for students who have been out since mid-March. The consensus from both personal observations and objective measurements is that online education simply can’t equal that of in-person instruction, for a million different reasons spanning from access to technology to parents’ time and capabilities to adolescent attention spans.
So everyone involved, from administrators to even the students if they’re honest about it, wants to go back. The question, though, is if that is safe considering the virus is not only lingering well into the summer but actually spiking.
Thankfully, the data from other countries shows that it can be done. That’s one of the side effects — I don’t know if you’d go so far as to call it a benefit — of this global pandemic: We can observe the different responses between nations and use what works and what doesn’t to guide our decisions.
And the consensus that has developed around the world is that small children just don’t pose as much of a threat for spreading the virus as adults do. Some examples:
• A study from six countries with very different cultures — Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea — showed children are just half as likely as adults to become infected, according to a Washington Post story.
• An Australian study examined five primary schools and 10 high schools from March to mid-April and found that out of 863 people who were in close contact with someone with COVID-19, only two, or 0.23%, contracted the coronavirus, according to a news report on Advisory.com.
• That same story cited another study, from France, where a 9-year-old who attended three different schools while showing symptoms didn’t infect anyone. “It would be almost unheard of for an adult to be exposed to that many people and not infect anyone else,” Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious-diseases researcher at a British hospital, was quoted as saying.
• Multiple countries that have reopened schools — including Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand — have reported no increase in infection rates, according to a Wall Street Journal article. “Our interpretation is that it may be that the children aren’t that important for the spread of infection,” Dr. Tyra Grove Krause, a senior official with Denmark’s equivalent of the CDC, was quoted as saying.
Why? No one knows for sure, but some have speculated it’s because children have been exposed more to other strains of coronavirus and thus have more immunity or that children have less ACE2 receptors, proteins that the coronavirus uses to get into cells.
Of course, some experts disagree with all this and think children still pose a substantial risk for spreading the disease asymptomatically and that the reason less children have gotten the disease is because they’ve been exposed less than adults because schools have been closed. But that’s how science works, particularly on a developing issue like this: There are different opinions that get tested and results vary from place to place and in different conditions. The rational path is to take the available evidence and make the best decision you can.
And you’ve got to factor in all the other costs and risks. In this case, children are more susceptible to abuse and neglect when out of school, not to mention the cost of falling behind in their learning and the mental toll of being isolated from their peers. There’s also the economic price families pay when parents have to work and don’t have anywhere else they can send their children during the day.
For my money, it’s worth the risk at this point to proceed with opening schools. Don’t do it recklessly — work out plans to keep distances, wear masks if it works out that children can be compelled to keep them on and clean like crazy — but let’s get back to educating our kids.
• Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Contact him at 601-736-2611.