Aly Muhammad Ladak, Science Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic has had immense impacts on society at large. In particular, the school closures resulting from the pandemic have produced setbacks in childhood education and development. On average, students have lost ⅔ of a school year, or about 22 weeks, of learning. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, referred to these setbacks as “a generational catastrophe”, and evidence is mounting to show that it will have ramifications for social mobility and gender equality on a global scale. Therefore, returning to school is imperative to support students’ educational development and minimize further harm.
However, opening schools may also help spread COVID-19, risking lives and prolonging the pandemic. For instance, a study published in Nature Communications modelled the spread of COVID-19 in the Netherlands and noted that closing schools in November 2020 would have cut the effective reproduction number of the virus to below 1 – meaning that daily cases would have decreased with time. As a result, strategies for re-opening schools need to balance students’ developmental and educational needs with public health concerns.
A Multifaceted Issue
Children are generally far less susceptible to the virus – people aged 19 and under accounted for 16.5% of cases and less than 0.1% of deaths in Ontario. Thus, most concerns do not lie in children themselves getting sick. The risk instead lies in children asymptomatically carrying and spreading COVID-19, unknowingly acting as vectors to carry the disease to more vulnerable members of the population – in particular, their parents and grandparents. This is especially true with regards to the household spread of the virus – 7% of Ontario’s household COVID-19 outbreaks between June and December 2020 came from children. There is still some disagreement about how much it contributed to the second and third waves of the pandemic; however, the risk of attending school in person has increased as the pandemic has progressed. This coincides with the rise of the Delta variant – a form of the virus with mutations that increase transmissibility and potentially virulence. This variant, which now accounts for the majority of cases in Canada and the US, has far higher infection rates in children – making in-person schooling a bigger public health concern.
Different Approaches: Texas vs. Ontario
Despite the prevalence of vaccines, opening schools as if the pandemic was over could have significant consequences. This is not merely a hypothetical – several states in the US opened schools in early- to mid-August, and are already experiencing sharp rises in cases, especially in children. For instance, in the two-week period from August 19th to September 2nd, over 450,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported in US children – roughly 10% of all childhood cases reported in the country since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, the largest rise in childhood cases occurred in states which have had their schools open the longest. This spread was exacerbated by nonexistent or harmful regulations. Texas provides a particularly striking example of school spread – as the state has banned government institutions from having mask mandates, most schools have little to no protection measures. In the last week of August, Texas had over 27,000 COVID-19 cases in students – the most for any week in the pandemic. This unprecedented level of spread indicates the danger of the Delta variant in the school spread of COVID-19.
Thankfully, Ontario has more stringent pandemic measures than most of the US – particularly when compared to states like Texas. Staff and students from grades 1 to 12 must wear masks, primary school classes will be in cohorts (the same group of students in different classes, and with the same teacher), and screening procedures are in place. It remains to be seen whether these measures will be sufficient to minimize school-based spread – similar procedures last year still led to some spread, and the prevalence of the Delta variant may increase this.
However, the risk of children spreading COVID-19 is mitigated by the widespread vaccinations in Ontario. Over 84% of the eligible population has at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is effective at reducing the spread and very effective in preventing hospitalization (even for the Delta variant). Although children under 12 cannot currently get vaccinated, vaccinating the rest of the population significantly reduces the risk of them spreading the disease. Concerns remain about whether the vaccination rate is sufficient to eventually end the pandemic – Ontario has had nearly 3-4 times as many daily cases in early September as it did at the same time last year. Although the majority of these are in unvaccinated people, the spread still represents a significant risk. If this increase in cases is compounded by school-based spread (as it has been in the US), it could result in yet more school closures – and deep, lasting damages to students.