What we know about the spread of Covid among children – and whether school closures reduce the risk

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An unused classroom at Karl Marx High School in Saxony-Anhalt, Gardelegen, Germany. Due to the still relatively tense Covid-19 situation, stricter rules apply in Saxony-Anhalt as well as across the country. Schools must remain in emergency operation until at least the end of January.

Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert | image alliance | Getty Images

LONDON – The science around the link between children and the spread of the coronavirus continues to evolve, but a growing body of evidence seems to suggest that schoolchildren play an important role in community transmission.

It comes at a time when the resurgence in the spread of Covid-19 has prompted most of Europe to adopt the strictest level of public health measures, with many countries in the region closing schools as part of the move. ” a broader plan to reduce infection rates and ease stress. on already stressed health establishments.

The polarizing question of whether schools should remain open is far from clear, with the World Health Organization urging policymakers to be guided by a risk-based approach in order to maximize benefits for the population.

School closures have a clear negative impact on children’s health, the United Nations health agency warned, citing setbacks in children’s education and development, family income and the economy in general .

At this time, it remains to be seen exactly when schools will need to remain at least partially closed, and when they can fully reopen.

Is Closing Schools Slowing The Spread?

A study by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich determined that Switzerland’s decision to close schools last March was responsible for a 21.6% reduction in mobility.

The study, released on Sunday and has yet to be peer reviewed, found that school closures ranked third in reducing mobility nationwide – and therefore the transmission of Covid.

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Banning gatherings of more than five people has proven to be the most effective policy tool, reducing mobility by around a quarter, while the closure of non-essential restaurants, bars and stores has caused people to cut back the total number of trips by 22.3%.

Teachers in a queue waiting for their Covid test. A group of teachers who are due to start working in the youngest grades 1 to 3 in primary schools are being tested for Covid-19. (Photo by Alex Bona / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Alex Bona | SOPA Pictures | LightRocket via Getty Images

The study estimated that a 1% reduction in human mobility predicts a 0.88% to 1.11% reduction in daily reported Covid cases, underscoring the effectiveness of school closures in slowing the spread of the disease. virus. It analyzed telecommunications data including 1.5 billion trips made by Swiss residents between February 10 and April 26 last year.

“Studies in interventions in hundreds of countries around the world have consistently shown that school closures are associated with a reduction in R and openings with an increase,” said Dr Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London, by email. .

The so-called “R” rate, or reproduction rate, refers to the average number of infections secondary to Covid produced by a single infected person.

What measures can be put in place to reduce the risks?

In the UK, schools for the vast majority of children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to remain closed in the coming weeks. And QMU’s Gurdasani said data in England had previously shown Covid cases plummeting during school closing points, such as during the mid-term break.

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Referring to data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, she added that children aged 2 to 11 were twice as likely as adults to be zero patients in the household, while those aged between 12 to 16 years old were seven times more susceptible to infection in the family home.

Recognizing the impact of schools on community transmission is essential to ensure that we minimize the risk of transmission within schools, as well as from schools to the community.

Deepti Gurdasani

Clinical Epidemiologist at Queen Mary University, London

The ONS looked at household data in England between April and November of last year. He also found that, once infected, children aged 2 to 16 were twice as likely to infect household contacts as adults over 17.

“In light of this, it is essential that governments introduce mitigation measures in schools, including smaller class sizes and bubbles, better ventilation and better air filtration with monitoring, the use of masks, social distancing, hygiene and the use of large empty spaces to reduce risk, ”Gurdasani told me.

“Recognizing the impact of schools on community transmission is essential to ensure that we minimize the risk of transmission within schools, as well as from schools to the community.”

What is the risk for young people?

Palestinian students wearing face masks line up to enter their school after a face-to-face education, which was cut short as part of the new type of measures against the coronavirus (Covid-19), resumed today for the primary and secondary school students in the Gaza Strip on January 13, 2021.

Ali Jadallah | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

This is not to say that no cases of serious illness have been reported in children. WHO says children under 18 make up about 8.5% of reported cases. And, as with adults, pre-existing medical conditions have been suggested as a factor in severe illness and admission to intensive care.

What does ECDC recommend?

“If appropriate measures are implemented in schools to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading, school settings are unlikely to play a substantial role in transmission,” ECDC says on its website. “In addition, schools are an essential part of society and the lives of children.”

The agency added, “Widespread school closures should be considered a last resort, and should only be considered after other measures have been put in place within the community to contain the spread of the disease. disease.”

Late last month, an ECDC review found that the return of schoolchildren in mid-August last year did not appear to have been the driving force behind the surge in cases seen in many states across the country. EU in the fall.

Further studies to understand the risk of infection in children and to assess transmission by age group are ongoing.

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