Alice Brock-Utne, MD
We all want our kids back in classrooms with the teachers they love and the friends they cherish, but are they safe? Does it make sense to fill up classrooms during a pandemic? Isn’t this exactly what we are trying not to do by closing bars, restaurants, and salons and sending people home to work? Didn’t we close school in March because schools could super spread COVID-19 in our community?
The answer is, we know more now than we knew in March. When the Coronavirus pandemic introduced itself to us, it didn’t give us any clues to how it would spread and who it would hurt. Since then, teams of scientists all over the globe, working around the clock, have learned enough about this disease that America’s pediatricians have recommended kids go back to school, with modifications.
Here is what we know.
COVID-19 DOESN’T SPREAD LIKE THE FLU
The last time the world faced a rapidly spreading pandemic, it was the 1918 influenza outbreak. A hundred years later, with very little information about COVID-19, our leaders in science and government used the one example they had to guide quick decisions to stop the spread of the disease. And, because closing schools in 1918 was one of the important decisions that made the difference between cities that were devastated by influenza and cities that weren’t, that was the call. There just wasn't enough research available to decide otherwise. What if children were silently spreading Coronavirus at school, carrying the disease in their mouths, noses, and lungs without getting sick enough to go to the doctor?
Any teacher can tell you how often a smiling, cuddling, child has a runny nose that spreads to the whole class. Every year when influenza season hits, research shows that children drive the spread. But, Influenza is a completely different virus than Coronavirus. They aren’t even in the same family! Fast forward to July 2020; in the past 5 months, scientific research has drawn important distinctions between Coronavirus and other viruses. Children don’t just get less sick with COVID-19, they don’t even catch it as often. And, when they do get it, they don’t seem to spread it to other kids or to adults very often. In fact, most of the time a child catches COVID-19, it’s been from an adult in their family.
Since then, teams of scientists all over the globe, working around the clock, have learned enough about this disease that America’s pediatricians have recommended kids go back to school, with modifications.
It just doesn’t look like kids attending school will set our communities back in the battle against this pandemic.
MASKS SPREAD KINDNESS INSTEAD OF CORONAVIRUS
Now that so many places in the world are making masks mandatory, our scientists have been able to look at how effective masks are at stopping Coronavirus in its tracks. It turns out, masks are very effective. If a sick person wears a mask they are much less likely to spread Coronavirus to others. So, wearing a mask isn’t just to protect you, it is to protect the people around you in case you are sick and don’t know it yet. It is a kindness to others. Children are really good at understanding kindness. If children wear a mask inside at school they can spread kindness instead of coronavirus.
HAND WASHING IS EASY (AND TEACHERS ARE GOOD AT REMINDING KIDS TO DO IT)
Coronavirus isn’t a super villain. It doesn’t have super powers and it’s definitely not immortal. In fact, it is very easy to kill. When you wash your hands you kill Coronavirus. You also kill strep throat, the flu, and other illness! We’ve learned that simple hand washing and regular cleaning of surfaces works on Coronavirus just as well as any virus. Teachers are particularly skilled at building routines and behaviors that are good for kids. Hand washing and surface cleaning will become part of every classroom’s routine.
WHAT ABOUT AIR SPREAD?
The thought of Coronavirus lingering in the air until it’s breathed in accidentally is scary. Can we still go to school when that might be possible? The truth is, we still don’t know how it spreads through the air (but scientists are still working around the clock to answer all of our “why” questions!) We do know how to spread it less. If you don’t want to catch or spread Coronavirus wear masks, wash hands, keep distance (no cuddling the teacher), be a child, and play outside.
Children are really good at understanding kindness. If children wear a mask inside at school they can spread kindness instead of coronavirus.
IS IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR A CHILD TO CATCH CORONAVIRUS AT SCHOOL?
Sadly, it’s not impossible. Just like when we ride a bike, we wear a helmet because there is a chance we might fall down and get hurt. To go to school during a pandemic we all need to agree to do things differently to protect ourselves. Masks, hand washing, keeping physical space from others, and staying home when sick can make school much much safer. Because school is really important and really great, these simple choices can make the chance of catching Coronavirus low enough that kids can go to school.
Spread kindness, wear a mask.
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.