The last two weeks have brought distressing news of a dramatic increase in Covid-19 cases in Western New York. Hospitalizations have almost tripled. Impending shutdowns loom unless people commit to limiting activities that promote high-risk exposures.
But one thing is unlikely to promote community spread of Covid-19: schools, particularly elementary schools. While there were initial concerns that schools could act as accelerators of community spread, all the current available evidence has shown that this is not the case.
Unlike what we see with most respiratory viruses, children under age 10 are unlikely to get very sick from or spread the virus to others. Second, we know that when an environment is risk-modified through safety strategies, spread is significantly reduced. Third, the school environment provides safe and consistent cohorting, allowing for students to remain in the same small groups so that community interactions are limited and traceable.
It is notable that during the most recent wave of temporary shutdowns, European schools have remained safely open, with policymakers citing the relatively minimal risk and the societal benefits of maintaining in-person education. Some of these officials have voiced concern that school shutdowns may worsen community viral spread. We share these priorities and concerns.
It’s not difficult to imagine how restricting in-person schooling would force parents to scramble to find childcare arrangements that are neither consistent nor risk-modified.
Children rely on school for social and emotional enrichment, health and physical safety, in addition to education. As a society, how can we deny children these fundamental benefits when keeping our schools closed is unlikely to decrease viral spread and may, in some cases, promote it?
We can tell you firsthand, based on our clinical experience with Covid-19, that our community spread in Western New York is not being driven by in-person schooling, but instead by events like birthday parties, baby showers, wine tastings and visits with friends in private homes – all happening indoors and without masking or distancing.
Please rethink plans for upcoming travel and dense holiday gatherings. These are high-risk potential exposures that will only worsen what is an extremely concerning trajectory of Covid-19 cases in Western New York. Schools, however, should remain open. They are perhaps our most important and essential business.
Katherine Mullin, M.D., is an infectious disease physician and the director of Infection Control and Prevention at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Lauren Kuwik, M.D., is an internist and pediatrician in private practice in Orchard Park. Both are mothers of school-aged children.
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