One of the central questions in the debate around reopening schools has been whether or not classrooms present a high level of risk.
While some studies have found few confirmed cases of classroom transmission, other researchers are pushing back.
Dr. Kim Prather is an aerosol expert who serves as director of the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment and a distinguished professor at the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She says there is conflicting data on whether or not children are a major vector of transmission.
“When there’s been some really careful studies looking at broader testing - what we call surveillance testing, not just relying on symptoms - it shows very much that kids are more likely to be the ones to bring it home.”
She cited one study which found that without mitigation, kids aged 12 to 16 are seven times more likely to bring the virus home to their families than kids 17 and older.
“While they may not get as sick, they may not show symptoms, they are the ones that can contribute to the spread.”
Dr. Prather says the conflicting data is because many studies are relying on symptomatic cases instead of conducting widespread testing among a school population, which she says can result in incomplete data as children are far less likely to develop symptoms than adults.
“Around the globe people have looked at the effects of school closures on community transmission… when schools have closed they’ve seen that has a huge effect on reducing the spread in the community. So it’s more like you have to look at these massive data sets and you also have to look at the ones that have done the testing on a broader range, not just kids with symptoms.”
Dr. Prather says while there are safe and effective strategies to open schools closely, she argues that schools should stay closed when there is a high rate of community spread.
After surges have passed, strategies like face masks, distancing, spending time outdoors when possible and increasing ventilation are both easy and effective ways to drastically reduce risk in schools.
While many schools cannot realistically overhaul their HVAC systems to increase ventilation, even keeping doors and windows open can make a noticeable different.