Schools become new battleground in virus war

Unequal odds: Research shows under-10s are half as likely to be infected as older children. © AP

Is the coronavirus transmitted in schools? Many scientists say children have a minimal role in the pandemic. Yet, in the last two weeks of July alone, nearly 100,000 tested positive in the USA.

The photograph posted by 15-year-old Hannah Watters caused a furore. It showed a corridor at North Paulding High School in Georgia, with scores of students crowding together as they walked along.

Hardly any of them were wearing masks; social distancing was non-existent. The school authorities were so angry and mortified that they suspended Hannah – though they later reinstated her.

In the wake of the photograph came the news that at least 97,000 children in the US had tested positive for Covid-19 in the last two weeks of July alone. In total, 338,000 have been found to be infected since the pandemic began.

What experts and politicians disagree on is how dangerous infections in children are for the population as a whole.

Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has declared that there is “little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”. Consequently, the UK government has ruled that schools should reopen next month. One of its advisers, Professor Russell Viner, says that this is “one of the least risky things we can do” in easing the lockdown.

There is no doubt that far fewer children become severely ill with the disease than adults. Less than 2% of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US, China, and Italy have been under-18s. The largest study done so far, which looked at 55,000 people hospitalised with the disease, found that a mere 0.8% were under the age of 19.

A harder question is how likely they are to pass it on to others.

A Chinese study at the start of the year suggested children under-10 were just as likely to catch the virus as adults; a German study concluded that they could be equally infectious. The worry was that they might be transmitting it without anyone realising because they did not show any symptoms.

Other studies, however, have been more optimistic. Another Chinese report, which focused on infected families, concluded that probably none of them had been given the disease by children.

Similarly, a report on an outbreak in the French Alps found that a child with the virus had had contact with more than 100 people without passing it on to any of them. “It would be almost unheard of for an adult to be exposed to that many people and not infect anyone else,” says Alasdair Munro, a researcher at University Hospital Southampton.

Australian scientists who looked specifically at cases spreading from schools to the wider community found nine students and nine teachers with the virus. Of the 850 people they had been in contact with, only two had contracted it.

A worldwide team of scientists concluded after reviewing all the available research: “The role of children in transmission is unclear, but consistent evidence is demonstrating a lower likelihood of acquiring infection, and lower rates of children bringing infections into households.”

Is the coronavirus transmitted in schools?

Mixed report

No. Children are at a lower risk of catching and spreading Covid-19 than other diseases. A Queensland University virologist, who collated studies from several different countries, concluded that a child was the first person to fall sick in only 8% of infected households – compared to 50% in outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu.

Yes. Children just get tested less because they have fewer symptoms. They have a lower rate of infection at present precisely because schools have been closed. On top of this, schools are important meeting places for adults such as teachers and parents. The risk to them and their families will increase significantly.

You Decide

  1. If you were a headteacher, what measures would you introduce to make your school safer from the pandemic?
  2. Should remote lessons be a permanent part of every school’s timetable?

Activities

  1. Make a poster for North Paulding High School, encouraging students to wear masks and observe social distancing.
  2. On two sides of paper, write a short story about someone who accidentally discovers a cure for the virus.

Some People Say...

“The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.”

William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971), Australian physicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that children deal with Covid-19 better than adults, and most who catch it have mild symptoms or none at all. International research puts the infection rate at 1% for young children and 6% for older ones. In the Netherlands, children under-17 make up 20.7% of the population, but account for only 1.3% of all reported patients with the virus.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around why children generally have no symptoms or milder ones. One theory is that their lungs might contain fewer of the proteins that the coronavirus uses to infect cells. Another is to do with “cytokines” – proteins the immune system releases to fight infection. If it releases too many, it can end up damaging the patient’s organs, which seems to happen in older people. Children, however, produce much lower levels of cytokines – just enough to deal with the virus.

Word Watch

Furore
An excited or angry reaction. It was originally an Italian word meaning “rage” or “madness”.
Mortified
Extremely embarrassed. The phrase “mortify the flesh” is used of people who deprive themselves of physical comforts – or inflict pain on themselves – to focus on spiritual matters.
French Alps
The Alps are Europe’s biggest mountain range, stretching for 750 miles across eight countries: France, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Lichtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia.
Likelihood
Probability. It can also mean a resemblance to something.
Virologist
Someone who studies viruses. In Latin, “virus” means a poison or slimy liquid.
Collated
Collected and combined (texts, information, or data).
H5N1 bird flu
A highly dangerous disease which was first found to have spread to humans in Hong Kong in 1997.

Subjects

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