As the time for school openings draws near, two recent publications should be sufficient to give anyone serious pause about sending children into a face-to-face classroom setting.

One: A study published online July 30 by JAMA Pediatrics (JAMA is the Journal of the American Medical Association) reports that children under 5 years old who test positive and have symptoms compatible with COVID-19 may harbor 10 to 100 times the viral load of older children and adults.

That’s 10 to 100 times the amount of virus, and it’s not all going to stay inside the kiddies’ upper respiratory system.

The test results were drawn from 145 patients, including 46 children younger than 5, 51 aged 5-17, and 48 adults 18-65 years old.

The study used standard nasopharyngeal swabs. Researchers estimated viral load by measuring the amount of nucleic acids produced by viral replication.

Higher levels of viral RNA correlate positively with the likelihood of spreading the disease, as shown in another study in which the ability to culture infectious virus increased with the amount of virus present.

The evidence suggests that young children with higher viral loads can be significant drivers of disease spread – similar to previous studies regarding the spread of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

The authors conclude: “Behavioral habits of young children and close quarters in school and day care settings raise concern for SARS-CoV-2 amplification in this population as public health restrictions are eased.”

Two: An article published the next day by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a COVID-19 outbreak at an unidentified overnight camp in Georgia.

Camp staffers – 258 of them, ranging in age from 14 to 41 – arrived for orientation on June 17, and 363 campers aged 6-19 arrived on June 21. A staff member went home sick two days later and tested positive for COVID-19. The camp started sending children home June 24 and was closed by June 27.

From among 344 Georgia residents known to have been tested within two weeks of attending the camp, public health records showed that 76% tested positive for the disease. Even when adding in all the people who were not tested, or for whom results were unavailable, the CDC calculated an “attack rate” of 44%.

In other words, at least 44% of people at the camp during the short time it was open tested positive for the disease.

Significantly, the younger the person, the more likely they were to be infected: the “attack rate” for children aged 6-10 was a whopping 51%, the rate for children 11-17 was 44%, and rate for those 18-21 was 33%.

The rate also increased with the length of time spent at the camp: The attack rate for staffers was 56%.

The study comes with a few caveats. Researchers believe the actual number of cases was higher because they didn’t have results for people who weren’t tested or whose results were not reported. They note the possibility that some could have been exposed shortly before or after attending. And, it was impossible for researchers to know whether individual campers observed proper social distancing.

The camp reportedly observed most safety recommendations, but not all. While staffers wore masks, children were not required to do so. Activities included singing and cheering.

One plus one equals an obvious conclusion: Putting children together in close quarters while COVID-19 remains rampant is a dangerous enterprise. Both studies show that the younger the children, the higher the incidence of disease.

No matter how careful school systems are about social distancing, cleaning and other efforts, the children will come from homes that can’t be monitored, and children will be children.

Evidence like this suggests that schools could easily become hotspots for the disease, and those very susceptible children come home to siblings and parents and grandparents.

Can you imagine trying to quarantine a first grader who’s been exposed?

Admittedly, these are only two studies, but at the least, they demonstrate the importance of exceeding caution.

Remote learning may not be ideal, but it still offers a far safer prospect than sending children into an outbreak waiting to happen.

That should be elementary.

Editor’s note: A series of Good Faith Forums on public education are taking place on Aug. 11, 18 and 25 via GFM’s Facebook page. Details are available here.

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