Should COVID-19 Keep Schools Closed? Weighing the Risks

Parents: Are you worried your child will contract COVID-19? If so, you’re not alone. A recent Gallup poll found that almost half of U.S. parents are very worried their children will get COVID-19 at school or in childcare.

As crucial as education is, parents know that attending school is not as important as being safe—but it’s challenging to sort through the available and evolving information about the impacts and risks of COVID-19. 

Parents accept daily risks for our children: driving a car, swimming in a pool, or visiting the playground. They weigh the perceived risk of any activity against the relative risks of alternatives. What are the risks regarding COVID-19? Studies continue to show children ages 0-10 are the lowest risk group, with risks increasing as they get older. Of the 8,000+ COVID-19 deaths reported in Pennsylvania, none have been reported among children under age 20.

Teachers’ unions have feared for months that reopened schools would be hotspots for infection and death. They haven’t been. An economist at Brown University analyzed COVID-19 rates for nearly 200,000 kids in 47 states that were in school at the end of September. She finds “an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff.” That’s a little over one student infected out of every 1,000. For perspective, the general population case rate in the United States is over twenty times that.

The low number of COVID-19 cases that our schools have experienced isn’t an anomaly. Studies from other countries with reopened classrooms such as Sweden, Finland, IrelandAustralia, and Germany also find little evidence for classroom transmission of COVID-19 to students, teachers, and family. 

In addition to assessing the risk of COVID transmission, parents know that the mental and emotional health of our children is integral to their physical wellbeing, and that some kids suffer real harm from not going back to school in-person. Both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics warn that closed schools present significant short- and long-term harm to children. These harms range from academic set-back to depression, substance use, physical inactivity, and abuse. 

As the dialogue about returning kids to in-person instruction continues around the state and country, it’s critical for parents, teachers, and administrators to take into consideration the data on children’s COVID risk, transmissions at opened schools around the country, and the physical and mental impacts of staying home.

Below is a meta-analysis of 60 studies measuring the effects of COVID-19 on children.