MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Most schools in southwest Alabama now are open, and the Mobile County school system starts online classes next week.
But the debate over how safe schools are in the novel coronavirus era still is far from over.
It’s easy to find anecdotes and studies to support either side, and the truth probably will not be known until schools have been open for weeks – or months.
There are conflicting results in countries where schools already have reopened – or never closed. But a consensus seems to be forming that the risks are lower with younger children and higher with teenagers. A study of 5,700 COVID-19 patients in South Korea found kids younger than 10 spread the virus at half the rate as adults. The transmission rate of children ages 10 to 19, however, resembled that of adults.
“We don’t see as much symptomatic infection in children,” said Rendi Murphree, the director of Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services at the Mobile County Health Department. “We do know that they can contribute to asymptomatic spread because, again, if they have infection and they are mildly ill they, they may just, you know, cough it up to a stomach ache or over-heating or something like that and not recognize that it's actually a COVID-19 infection.”
Murphree said she fears this school year will feature a series of closures and re-openings, similar to what local businesses have seen.
A study from Germany that drew widespread interest found that children have a low so-called “viral load,” which may make it harder for them to pass it to other people. A study in May published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reached a similar conclusion. Of 305 people ages 4 to 60, younger children had the lowest expression of an enzyme associated with COVID-19 transmission.
Another German study found that of 2,000 schoolchildren in Saxony, only 12 had the antibodies for the coronavirus. One researcher told reporters that the results suggest that schools are not important contributors to outbreaks and may even lead to “brakes” on transmission.
But a study just this month in The Journal of Pediatrics found children had higher levels of the virus in their airways than hospitalized adults in intensive care.
The Baldwin County system has reported a handful of COVID-related absences a day – most of them not actual confirmed cases. Statewide, less than 10 percent of coronavirus cases have been children younger than 18 even though that age group makes up 22 percent of the overall population.
Dr. David Gremse, chairman of pediatrics at the University of South Alabama Medical School, said it is impossible to make a sound decision about whether schools are safe without evaluating the larger community.
“If children are in a community in a rural area with limited internet access and fewer resources for online learning and there’s a low incidence of infection in the community, those children may benefit more from being in school,” he said. “If you’re in a community where there’s a high incidence of infection, then the risk may be a little bit different.”