Kids back in school a less worrying proposition

December 28, 2021 | 04:00 pm PT
Truong Huu Khanh Epidemiologist
My 9th grader returned to school two weeks ago, happy and excited – no doubt a massively welcome change after being stuck at home and before the computer for months.

On December 20, HCMC detected 34 new Covid-19 cases in a school, just a week after reopening on-site classes for 9th and 12th graders. The city is considering reopening classrooms for other grades as well.

Parents have been asking me whether returning to school now is safe or not. The kids have been just fine at home, so why make them go out and risk infections now, they wonder.

I understand their concerns. Honestly, however, that sense of safety is merely an illusion. There's no guarantee that children won't be infected if they continue to stay at home.

During periods of lockdown a few months ago, when every member of the family was confined to the same space, it made sense that children would be less likely to be exposed to infection sources.

But that's no longer the case now that society has reopened. As adults go out to work, who's there to supervise the kids? If they choose to run around the neighborhood, the point of keeping them at home would be defeated.

Schools would be a much better location to run around in rather than, say, different neighborhoods or supermarkets or street stalls. Letting children return to school would allow better supervision by adults, and they would have less time to fool around than if they stay home.

Let's consider this. A child at school typically has a clique of around five members that she/he hangs out with. If they are at home, each of the five can run off in different directions, exponentially increasing infection risks in the community.

In the age of the novel coronavirus, there is no such thing as absolute safety. The disease may get to anyone, anytime, anywhere. This is something we need to accept. The 34 cases detected at a school in a week is a number much lower than around 1,000 new cases detected in the city every day.

Another upside of letting children go to school is the fact that schools have already established appropriate responses to Covid-19 cases. If an infection is present, they will know how to tackle and contain an outbreak more efficiently and effectively than elsewhere in the larger society.

However, even with all the arguments I can muster in favor of schools reopening and students attending classes in person, there will be parents who are not convinced. A low infection rate doesn't mean zero infection, and that's not a chance parents are willing to take.

I believe the concern is psychological: what if the infection turns severe? What if other children get infected as well? What if they have to be tested and isolated, and the rest of the family? There are a thousand things to worry about, but that doesn't mean returning to school is the wrong choice.

I want to make things clear: the chance for children to be infected is only around 10-15 percent, and most symptoms would be mild and go away over time. Less than 1 percent of the cases would turn severe, compared to around 20 percent in adults.

The kids' Covid-19 fever would not be alarming and should not last for more than three days. Severe cases would only be likely if they've already had underlying conditions like obesity. Most children would recover just fine thanks to their robust immune system.

Even if cases are detected at schools, they would be contained and managed fairly quickly. Those infected would stay home, and others would be tested.

The price of forcing our children to stay home, on the other hand, would be high.

It's not all about education: online studies are fine for now, and there are multiple venues for students to learn anyway. But what our children need is human connection and emotional development, things that only schools and classrooms could offer in abundance.

Keeping them home for too long would be detrimental for both their physical and mental health in the long run. Parents cannot let their fears interfere with their children's rights to grow in their own time.

Taking it for granted that children have to return to school one day or other, the question is: If not now, when?

*Truong Huu Khanh is an epidemiologist and a member of the National Board for Vaccine Evaluation. The opinions expressed are his own.

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