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  • Tracy Sherlock

Jury still out on children's role in spreading covid-19

Premier John Horgan and Education Minister Rob Fleming announce the purchase of a new school site on Vancouver Island. (Photo from B.C. government.)

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Education Minister Rob Fleming have promised an update with a back-to-school plan for September in the next couple of weeks. But on Friday, Horgan said the plan may not be finalized until September.

There are still a lot of unknowns about covid-19 and the situation is volatile. The pandemic is still raging south of the border and flaring up in outbreaks here in B.C. Anything could happen by September, however, given that change in schools tends to move slowly, planning is crucial.

Horgan urged parents to “be patient” but also to “have confidence,” that planning is underway. B.C. has an advantage over many other jurisdictions because schools here had a partial reopening in June.

While in-class learning is vital for young children and covid-19 doesn’t tend to hit children as hard as adults, the jury is still out on how much children spread the disease.

A new study from South Korea found that children between the ages of 10 and 19 may spread the virus even more than other age groups. The study followed “index cases” of covid-19, to see if people they lived with also got the virus. Then it looked at their non-household contacts as well.

Overall, 11.8 per cent of household contacts those index cases also got covid-19. But in households where the index patient was between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6 per cent of household members got covid-19. That was the highest rate for any age group, while younger children had the lowest rate at 5.3 per cent of household contacts testing positive.

The good news is that only 1.9 per cent of non-household contacts found by contact tracing got covid-19.

The study’s authors note that schools were closed and social distancing was in place while the study was done, a factor that might be part of the reason household spread was so much more than community spread. It concludes that further evidence, such as serologic studies, is needed to evaluate the benefits of school closures for stopping the spread of covid-19.

A seemingly contradictory study from the Netherlands found that children play a minor role in the spread of the virus. It looked at 10 covid-19 patients younger than 18 years old, who had 43 close contacts and found that none of the close contacts became ill. The same researchfound that 8.3 per cent of close contacts of patients older than 18 did become ill.

In B.C., there have been 151 cases of covid-19 among children under 19, but only three hospitalizations and no deaths. There have been no school or daycare outbreaks, the BC CDC reports.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry noted last week an increase in cases in young people between the ages of 20 and 30, who may have only mild symptoms, but their ability to spread the virus is just as high as older people. If the ability to spread the virus is even higher among children aged 10 to 19, that raises serious concerns about bringing older children back to in-person learning.

One way to bring schools back would be to have much smaller classes and much less moving between classes for older children.

Smaller classes would require more space and more staff. B.C.’s teachers have asked the provincial government for just that, in their recommendations to the next provincial budget.

But hiring more teachers would be expensive, and as B.C.’s Finance Minister Carole James reported last week, B.C. is facing a possible $12.5-billion deficit, thanks to covid-19. The entire education budget for B.C. for this year, pre-covid, was $6.6 billion.

Schools serve a much greater societal function than just education – just consider the role they play in allowing parents to work and you will see the economic function of schools and teachers. They also feed hungry children, look after mental health issues, detect physical and sexual abuse, identify and address substance use and give kids a safe place to be socially active. In-person education is especially important for younger kids, and coincidentally, those are kids who don’t appear to be significant spreaders of covid-19.

It’s becoming increasingly more likely that B.C.’s return to school will be full-time, in-person for younger children and a hybrid of in-person and online for older children. The science backs this up.

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