When Will Kids Go Back to School?

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    Young children typically are “superspreaders” of respiratory germs, so it’s puzzling that they don’t seem to be major transmitters of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. They’re also relatively absent among hospitalized patients. Initially, that was thought to be because they’re less likely to become seriously ill if infected. Later studies indicate that those of primary school age, at least, may be less likely to catch the virus in the first place. Still, they’re not immune to an array of indirect Covid-19 harms, including physical abuse, learning gaps, anxiety and depression stemming from school closures, social isolation and other stress-inducing consequences of the pandemic. That’s informing considerations for how to safely keep kids in school.

    Of all Covid-19 cases reported worldwide last year, children under 18 years accounted for about 8%, despite comprising 29% of the global population, according to the World Health Organization. Under-reporting of pediatric infections is likely. Compared to adults, children with Covid-19 are more likely to have no symptoms or, if they do, predominantly mild ones limited to the nose, throat and upper airway. They rarely require hospitalization.

    The disruption has been unprecedented, affecting more than 1.6 billion learners in over 190 countries in 2020 alone, according to Unesco. The majority of students continued to be affected by full or partial closures of schools and universities into January, increasing the risk of learning loss, dropping out of education and social isolation. Although alternatives to in-person learning have been introduced, some 470 million pupils can’t get access to online or other required content for remote education.

    Prolonged school closures look certain to result in long-lasting economic and psychological harm, with deprived and marginalized groups affected most. The longer disadvantaged children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. According to Unicef, kids from the poorest households are almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from the richest. Although children in low- and middle-income countries will be hardest hit, large inequities exist in wealthy countries too. Estimates indicate that 3-10% of students in the U.S. have been “disengaged for almost the better part of a year,” according to Annette C. Anderson, deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Learning loss will probably be greatest among youth from low-income families, and Black and Hispanic students, exacerbating existing achievement gaps by 15-20%, McKinsey & Co. estimated in June. The consulting firm predicted U.S. students in grades K-12 may lose, on average, the equivalent of a year of full-time work in lifetime earnings solely as a result of Covid-related learning losses. Black and Hispanic Americans would suffer the highest toll. That’s supported by modeling by researchers at the University of Washington and University of California, Los Angeles who found, by not graduating high school, children may experience a lifetime of lower wages and disadvantage, and that prolonged, missed instruction may reduce life expectancy.

    The CDC has outlined mitigation strategies that include the proper use of masks, social distancing, strict cleaning and maintenance of classrooms, and rapid contact tracing, echoing guidelines and recommendations from the WHO and others. These also include guidance on producing outbreak prevention and management plans, testing for cases, ensuring adequate ventilation and hygiene practices and frequent communication with parents, students, teachers and staff. U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged that many of the CDC guidelines would be costly and difficult to implement, but called reopening schools a “national imperative.”

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