Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Right now many of the world's children are beginning to return to school after extended lockdowns due to COVID-19. Not surprisingly, precisely how and when to permit children to return to schools has led to lively public debate. The concern, of course, is that children could be put at risk from the infection and become "super spreaders" for community transmission. But what does the evidence suggest so far?
Well, research is ongoing and it will take some time before there is a definitive picture. However, research is rapidly taking shape, and the early findings are both interesting and encouraging.
This blog post focuses on answering the following three key questions by examining the current research emerging globally on the novel coronavirus:
1. How likely are children to become infected?
2. How likely are children to spread the disease?
3. How high is transmission risk in outdoor settings?
It also looks more closely at whether outdoor education could be an essential part of the solution in the "new normal" within schools worldwide. It relies on the available science and not on opinion. As with anything in science, as new information and evidence emerges, we must update our understanding and knowledge frameworks. Science never stands still and nor should it. So here goes...
1. How likely are children to become infected with COVID-19?
Overall, children appear to be less likely to become infected than adults. A review of international studies by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health found that the percentage of children among the confirmed COVID-19 patients is small, varying from 1% in young children and up to 6% in older children. In China and Japan, tracing studies give a similar picture. One Chinese study found that adults aged 15-64 were three times as likely to be infected by others in their household than children aged 0-14 were, while adults aged over 65 were at even greater risk. In addition, a closer look at Iceland, where large-scale testing has been carried out, a population screening programme did not reveal a single infected child under the age of 10 (out of a total of 100 confirmed cases).
Taken together, the lower infection rates and typically milder symptoms in children mean that the disease is affecting the child population far less severely than for older age groups. The UK Office for National Statistics mortality dataset – probably the most reliable source of information on fatalities – shows that March 2020 saw just one Covid-19 related child fatality (in fact aged between 15 and 19). The chart below shows the ONS figures for different age groups.
2. How Likely Are Children to Spread the COVID-19?
Studies are also beginning to emerge on the likelihood of children spreading COVID-19. Of course, anybody who has worked with children in schools or other childcare settings, will know first hand that kids are often very effective at spreading bugs and other viral infections, especially illnesses like colds and the flu. Therefore, it is prudent to be very cautious when examining how likely children are to spread the coronavirus, and whether it is safe to permit children to return to education settings.
So far, studies of household clusters of infection show that children are the &quo