An unused classroom at the Karl Marx Secondary School in Saxony-Anhalt, Gardelegen, in Germany. Due to the still comparatively tense situation in Covid-19, stricter rules apply both in Saxony-Anhalt and across the country. The schools should remain in emergency operation at least until the end of January.
Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert | Image Alliance | Getty Images
LONDON – The science of the link between children and the spread of the coronavirus is still developing, but growing body of evidence appears to suggest that children who go to school play an important role in community transmission.
It comes at a time when the resurgent spread of Covid-19 has led most of Europe to take the toughest public health measures. Many countries in the region have closed schools in an attempt to lower infection rates and reduce the burden on healthcare facilities that are already stressed.
The polarizing question of whether schools should stay open is far from clear. The World Health Organization urges policymakers to be guided by a risk-based approach in order to maximize the benefits to the population.
School closings clearly have a negative impact on children’s health, the United Nations Health Authority warned, citing setbacks in child education and development, family incomes and the wider economy.
It currently remains to be seen when exactly the schools will have to remain at least partially closed and when they can possibly be fully reopened.
Will Schools Closing Slow Down the Spread?
A study by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found that Switzerland’s decision to close schools in March last year reduced mobility by 21.6%.
The study, which was published on Sunday and has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that school closings rank third in reducing mobility across the country – and with it, the transmission of Covid.
A ban on gatherings of more than five people proved to be the most effective policy tool, reducing mobility by around a quarter, while the closings of restaurants, bars and non-essential shops resulted in the total number of trips increasing by 22.3% sank.
Teachers in a queue waiting for their Covid tests to be done. A group of teachers scheduled to work in the youngest grades 1 to 3 of elementary school will be subjected to a Covid-19 test. (Photo by Alex Bona / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)
Alex Bona | SOPA pictures | LightRocket via Getty Images
The study estimated that a 1% decrease in human mobility predicted a 0.88% to 1.11% reduction in daily reported Covid cases, underscoring the effectiveness of school closings in slowing the spread of the virus. It analyzed telecommunications data that consisted of 1.5 billion trips made by Swiss people between February 10 and April 26 last year.
“Studies of interventions in hundreds of countries around the world have consistently shown that school closings are associated with decreases in R and openings with increases,” said Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London, emailed CNBC.
The so-called “R” rate or reproduction rate refers to the average number of secondary Covid infections caused by a single infected person.
What measures can be taken to reduce the risk?
In the UK, schools are expected to be closed for the vast majority of children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the coming weeks. And QMU’s Gurdasani said data in England had previously shown that Covid cases decrease during school closings, for example during the holidays in the middle of the semester.
Referring to data from the UK National Statistics Office, she added that children between the ages of 2 and 11 were twice as likely as adults in the zero household, while children between the ages of 12 and 16 were seven times more likely to bring infection into the family home.
Understanding the impact schools have on community transmission is critical to ensuring that the risk of transmission within schools as well as from schools to the community is minimized.
Clinical Epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London
The ONS examined household data in England between April and November last year. It was also found that children between 2 and 16 years of age infected household contacts twice as likely as adults over 17 years of age.
“With this in mind, it is critical that governments introduce mitigation measures in schools, including smaller class and bubble sizes, better ventilation and air filtration with surveillance, mask use, social distancing, hygiene and the use of large empty spaces to reduce the risk,” so Gurdasani said.
“Recognizing the impact of schools on transmission by the community is critical to ensuring that the risk of transmission within schools as well as from schools to the community is minimized.”
What is the risk for young people?
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has stated that, according to an epidemiological investigation, transmission of Covid in schools represents a minority of all Covid cases in a given country.
The EU agency emphasizes that most children do not develop symptoms when infected with Covid. If symptoms develop, it is usually a very mild form of the disease.
Palestinian students wearing face masks stand in line to enter their school after personal training, interrupted as part of the new type of coronavirus (Covid-19) measures, resumed for elementary and secondary school students in the Gaza Strip today on January 13, 2021.
Ali Jadallah | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
That is not to say that cases of critical illness for children have not been reported. According to the WHO, children under the age of 18 account for around 8.5% of the reported cases. And, as with adults, pre-existing medical conditions have been suggested as a factor in serious disease outcomes and ICU admission.
What does the ECDC recommend?
“If appropriate measures are taken in schools to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, school attitudes are unlikely to play a significant role in transmission,” the ECDC website said. “In addition, schools are an integral part of society and children’s lives.”
The agency added: “Widespread school closings should be seen as a last resort and only considered after other measures are taken within the community to contain the spread of the disease.”
Late last month, an ECDC review found that the return of school children in mid-August last year did not appear to have been the driving force behind the recovery in cases seen in many EU countries in the fall.
Further studies to understand the risk of infection in children and assess age group transmission are ongoing.