CHILDREN IN MANY countries will soon swap their video games and swimming costumes for books and uniforms when they return to classrooms after the summer holidays. School closures have been one of the most common policies to curb the spread of covid-19—and one of the most contentious. According to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, since the start of the outbreak schools around the world have been wholly or partly closed for two-thirds of an academic year on average, with many children reliant on limited remote learning. Some eight countries, including Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Venezuela, are yet to reopen their schools. Keeping schools closed can harm children, but reopening risks creating covid-19 hotspots. To what extent might the return to school fuel the virus’s spread?
Children can catch and transmit the virus (although their symptoms are usually mild). A review by America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of research around the world concluded that neither increases in cases among school-aged children nor school reopenings appeared to increase transmission in general populations. In Italy, which was badly affected early in the pandemic, a study concluded that students were at a lower risk of catching covid-19 than the general population during the second wave and schools did not help drive infection rates. However, new variants and higher vaccination rates among adults may change that.
In England, for instance, between May 20th and June 7th, schools were open, the country’s vaccination programme was well under way and the ultra-contagious Delta variant became the dominant strain. During that period the proportion of children between five and 12 testing positive for the virus was five times that of the over-65s. This could be due to increased testing in schools, or because children were mixing more than adults as lockdown rules eased. But it could also be because more adults were protected. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the EU’s public-health agency, expects that a higher proportion of cases will be found among children and adolescents as more adults become fully inoculated.
Many governments have said that closing schools should be a last resort to contain further covid-19 waves. This is because the costs in learning are huge. How much transmission of the virus in schools contributes to an epidemic wave can be difficult to assess—it depends on a number of things including the number of cases in the community (if high, the cases in schools are likely to increase). But as more adults are vaccinated, schools will be one of the few places the virus can still spread easily. Ensuring that schools have robust measures in place, such as appropriate ventilation in classrooms and the use of face masks (a particularly contentious question in many American states, not least Texas), would help prevent transmission. Keeping infections among children low will be essential to reducing overall covid-19 cases in any given place. But keeping schools open remains essential to children’s future.