COVID-19 Special Report

The Myths of School Reopening

In an unusually testing exchange at the United States Senate between Kentucky Senator, Rand Paul and the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci; the senator made an extraordinary claim. In referring to whether school reopening are associated with a surge of COVID-19 cases, he said: “all of this body of evidence from schools around the world shows there’s no surge, all of the evidence shows that it’s rare”.

The self-contradiction of those two claims aside, the state of evidence regarding the opening of schools has become an issue of intense contention, with much fever and accusations on all slides of the issue. Here are some facts:

Myth: School reopening does not cause COVID-19 to spread

The regrettably complex answer to this question is that the senator is both right and wrong.

It is not an inaccurate statement to say that most districts which have instituted a reopening schedule for their brick and mortar schools have not seen a corresponding rise in the COVID cases; at least one which could be attributed directly to the school reopening themselves. In other words, as far as public health is concerned, most school reopenings have not led to the spread of infections from student to student leading to another major outbreak.

It is however a gross oversimplification to then suggest that school reopenings do not lead to a surge in cases. Most jurisdictions which have opened schools , particularly those which have done so safely, have done only proceeded with isolated openings, in areas with a minimal infection rates. No one knows what will happen if schools reopen in areas of active community spread, but if infection spreads like it does in adults, then the outcomes will almost certainly be harmful.

There is also precious little data on the long-term effects of reopening schools. In most cases, only weeks of data are available, and with out current methods of testing and tracing, it may easily take upto 21 – 28 days for an outbreak to be detected, let alone traced. Notably, this can take substantially longer in areas where testing is slow and contact tracing is weak.

Myth: Children aren’t effected by COVID-19

The myth that children are not affected by COVID is another pervasive, although emphatically more dangerous idea. It is accurate that the overwhelming majority of COVID fatalities have been adults, and that some – perhaps even most children can overcome the infection asymptomatically, that is, without showing signs of being sick (fever, cough). Yet, children especially over the age of 8 can transmit the infection just as easily as adults. Being asymptomatic can actually help accelerate the spread as kids can spread an infection without ever knowing they were sick. The asymptomatic spread may also be responsible for a systematic underdiagnosis of COVID-19 in children.

Myth: Wearing masks can protect us from COVID-19

Masks can be part of a broader strategy to minimize the risk of person to person transmission, but they do not guarantee protection. The principle behind masks is that they can reduce the spread of droplets that are necessary to transmit the virus from one person to another, but microscopic droplets can pass through most commercial masks. Adult masks on children may also be especially inefficient as an ill-fitting mask can let in almost as many pathogens as no mask at all. Poor mask hygiene, such as touching the front or leaving masks leaving on contaminated surfaces can also help spread infection. The short answer is that masks are helpful, but is no panacea.