Schools across the country shut down in March due to the WHO declaration of a pandemic (1). With the start of the new school year in the fall, we saw a much more varied approach to decisions regarding keeping schools open. Recent weeks have seen an upsurge in re-closing of schools due to rising case numbers. This includes Oklahoma City Public Schools, which is the largest school district in our state, and the school district in which our lab is situated (2). What is the science behind these decisions?
Part of the natural development of children’s immune system requires them to pick up and share germs from everywhere (3). This natural instinct helps kids to introduce as many germs to their immune systems as possible, so their bodies build up a strong defense from a wide array of pathogens that they may encounter as an adult. Parents are familiar with kids’ natural tendencies to touch everything, everywhere, all the time. One of our salesmen here at Wheeler Labs, Tom, summarized this succinctly today, “Kids are gross.”
This tendency also helps to spread disease, such as COVID-19. Children are less susceptible to the effects of SARS-CoV-2, so they are less likely to show symptoms (4). This does not, however, mean they are less likely to encounter the virus or share it with their friends and family. Princeton University went so far as to call children superspreaders for the disease (5). The idea is this: Kids pick up the virus from the things they touch. They don’t get sick. While they feel fine and their parents are unsuspecting of a problem, kids spread it over surfaces and people they encounter. The people they encounter pick up the virus and get sick.
How do we address this? The CDC recommends
- Limiting contact between children and susceptible people, especially the elderly (6).
- Limit the places kids can pick up the virus, such as school systems in areas where the number of cases is relatively high.
- Remind them to wash their hands often.
- Wear masks when in public.
If you haven’t already seen this, here is a great graphic demonstration of why social distancing and limiting contact through measures such as closing schools works.
- WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.
- Remote Learning / Remote Learning – Message from McDaniel. http%3A%2F%2Fwww.okcps.org%2Fsite%2Fdefault.aspx%3FDomainID%3D1836. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.
- Ygberg, Sofia, and Anna Nilsson. “The Developing Immune System – from Foetus to Toddler.” Acta Paediatrica (Oslo, Norway: 1992), vol. 101, no. 2, Feb. 2012, pp. 120–27. PubMed, doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2011.02494.x.
- “Largest COVID-19 Contact Tracing Study to Date Finds Children Key to Spread, Evidence of Superspreaders.” Princeton University, https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/09/30/largest-covid-19-contact-tracing-study-date-finds-children-key-spread-evidence. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.
- Laxminarayan, Ramanan, et al. “Epidemiology and Transmission Dynamics of COVID-19 in Two Indian States.” Science, vol. 370, no. 6517, Nov. 2020, pp. 691–97. sciencemag.org, doi:10.1126/science.abd7672.
- “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 Feb. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/living-in-close-quarters.html.