Never has the prospect of "back to school" seemed so ominous as it does in 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases climb steadily in nearly every state, the prospect of in-person classes are filling students, parents, and faculty alike with a corresponding sense of dread.
The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue.
The decision to resume classes at primary, secondary, and collegiate levels is not one that should be regarded lightly, particularly as coronavirus cases skyrocket across the United States.
What should be a measured, data-driven discussion that weighs risks and benefits has been derailed by political talking points. President Trump has been steadily advocating for an unfettered return to the classroom, often through imperative "OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!" tweets. In July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold funding from schools that did not reopen for full-time, in-person classes, despite not having the authority to do so. Like so many public health issues, opening schools in the midst of a generational pandemic has been politicized to the point that the question of whether it is safe to do so has been obscured and confounded. However, this question still deserves to be examined based on evidence.
What We Know About Kids and COVID-19
Some arguments for returning to in-person education have focused on the fact that children and young adults are less susceptible to severe disease. In some cases, people have stated that children cannot be infected, pointing to countries that have resumed in-person education with no associated outbreaks. However, those countries had extremely low community transmission and robust testing and surveillance.
The notion that children are immune or resistant to SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably untrue: children can be infected, they can become sick, and, in rare cases, they can die. Children can also transmit the virus to others, especially if they are in prolonged proximity to them. A Georgia sleepaway camp was the site of at least 260 cases among mostly children and teenagers, some as young as 6 years old. Children have been shown to shed infectious virus in their nasal secretions and have viral loads comparable to adults. Children can unquestionably be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spread it to others.
The more data emerges, the more it appears that both primary and secondary schools and universities alike are conducive environments for super-spreading. Mitigating these risks depends heavily on individual schools' ability to enforce reduction measures. So far, the evidence demonstrates that in most cases, schools are unable to adequately protect students or staff. A school superintendent from a small district in Arizona recently described an outbreak that occurred among staff prior to in-person classes resuming. Schools that have opened so far have almost immediately reported new clusters of cases among students or staff.
This is because it is impossible to completely eliminate risk even with the most thoughtful mitigation measures when community transmission is high. Risk can be reduced, but the greater the likelihood that someone will be exposed in the community, the greater the risk they might pass the virus to others on campus or in the classroom.
There are still many unknowns about SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but some environments are known risks for virus transmission: enclosed spaces with crowds of people in close proximity over extended durations. Transmission is thought to occur predominantly through inhaled aerosols or droplets containing SARS-CoV-2, which are produced through common school activities such as breathing, speaking, or singing. Masks reduce but do not eliminate the production of these aerosols. Implementing universal mask-wearing and physical distancing guidelines will furthermore be extraordinarily challenging for very young children.
Smaller particle aerosols can remain suspended in the air and accumulate over time. In an enclosed space where people are gathering, such as a classroom, this renders risk mitigation measures such as physical distancing and masks ineffective. Many classrooms at all levels of education are not conducive to improving ventilation through low-cost measures such as opening windows, much less installing costly air filtration systems.
As a risk reduction measure, ventilation greatly depends on factors like window placement, window type, room size, room occupancy, building HVAC systems, and overall airflow. There isn't much hard data on the specific effects of ventilation on virus transmission, and the models that support ventilation rely on assumptions based on scant experimental evidence that doesn't account for virologic parameters.
There is also no data about how effective air filtration or UV systems would be for SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk reduction, so it's hard to say if this would result in a meaningful risk reduction or not. We don't have enough data outside of a hospital setting to support that ventilation and/or filtration would significantly reduce risk, and it's impractical (and most likely impossible in most schools) to implement hospital ventilation systems, which would likely require massive remodeling of existing HVAC infrastructure. In a close contact situation, the risk reduction might be minimal anyway since it's difficult to avoid exposure to respiratory aerosols and droplets a person is exhaling.
You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity.
Efforts to resume in-person education depend heavily on school health and safety plans, which often rely on self-reporting of symptoms due to insufficient testing capacity. Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 can be readily transmitted by pre-symptomatic individuals who may be unaware that they are sick, making testing an essential component of any such plan. Primary and secondary schools are faced with limited access to testing and no funds to support it. Even in institutions that include a testing component in their reopening plans, this is still too infrequent to support the full student body returning to campus.
Economic Conflicts of Interest
Rebecca Harrison, a PhD candidate at Cornell University serving on the campus reopening committee, is concerned that her institution's plan places too much faith in testing capacity and is over-reliant on untested models. Harrison says that, as a result, students are being implicitly encouraged to return to campus and "very little has been done to actively encourage students who are safe and able to stay home, to actually stay home."
Harrison also is concerned that her institution "presumably hopes to draw students back from the safety of their parents' basements to (re)join the residential campus experience ... and drive revenue." This is a legitimate concern. Some schools may be actively thwarting safety plans in place to protect students based on financial incentives. Student athletes at Colorado State have alleged that football coaches told them not to report COVID-19 symptoms and are manipulating contact tracing reports.
Public primary and secondary schools are not dependent on student athletics for revenue, but nonetheless are susceptible to state and federal policies that tie reopening to budgets. If schools are forced to make decisions based on a balance sheet, rather than the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff, they will implement health and safety plans that are inadequate. Schools will become ground zero for new clusters of cases.
Looking Ahead: When Will Schools Be Able to Open Again?
One crucial measure is the percent positivity rate in the local community, the number of positive tests based on all the tests that are done. Some states, like California, have implemented policies guiding the reopening of schools that depend in part on a local community's percent positivity rate falling under 8 percent, among other benchmarks including the rate of new daily cases. Currently, statewide, test positivity is below 7%, with an average of 3 new daily cases per 1000 people per day. However, the California department of health acknowledges that new cases per day are underreported. There are 6.3 million students in the California public school system, suggesting that at any given time, there could be nearly 20,000 students who might be contagious, without accounting for presymptomatic teachers and staff. In the classroom environment, just one of those positive cases could spread the virus to many people in one day despite masks, distancing, and ventilation.
You'd need to get very low rates in the local community to open safely in person regardless of other risk reduction measures, and this would need to be complemented by robust testing and contact tracing capacity. Only with rapid identification and isolation of new cases, followed by contact tracing and quarantine, can we break chains of transmission and prevent further spread in the school and the larger community.
None of these safety concerns diminish the many harms associated with the sudden and haphazard way remote learning has been implemented. Online education has not been effective in many cases and is difficult to implement equitably. Young children, in particular, are deprived of the essential social and intellectual development they would normally get in a classroom with teachers and their peers. Parents of young children are equally unprepared and unable to provide full-time instruction. Our federal leadership's catastrophic failure to contain the pandemic like other countries has put us in this terrible position, where we must choose between learning or spreading a deadly pathogen.
Blame aside, parents, educators, and administrators must decide whether to resume in-person classes this fall. Those decisions should be based on evidence, not on politics or economics. The data clearly shows that community transmission is out of control throughout most of the country. Thus, we ignore the risk of school outbreaks at our peril.
[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: 5 Key Questions to Consider Before Sending Your Child Back to School.]
[Editor's Note: We asked experts from different specialties to weigh in on a timely Big Question: "How should immunity testing play a role in re-opening society?" Below, a virologist offers her perspective.]
With the advent of serology testing and increased emphasis on "re-opening" America, public health officials have begun considering whether or not people who have recovered from COVID-19 can safely re-enter the workplace.
"Immunity certificates cannot certify what is not known."
Conventional wisdom holds that people who have developed antibodies in response to infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are likely to be immune to reinfection.
For most acute viral infections, this is generally true. However, SARS-CoV-2 is a new pathogen, and there are currently many unanswered questions about immunity. Can recovered patients be reinfected or transmit the virus? Does symptom severity determine how protective responses will be after recovery? How long will protection last? Understanding these basic features is essential to phased re-opening of the government and economy for people who have recovered from COVID-19.
One mechanism that has been considered is issuing "immunity certificates" to individuals with antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. These certificates would verify that individuals have already recovered from COVID-19, and thus have antibodies in their blood that will protect them against reinfection, enabling them to safely return to work and participate in society. Although this sounds reasonable in theory, there are many practical reasons why this is not a wise policy decision to ease off restrictive stay-home orders and distancing practices.
Too Many Scientific Unknowns
Serology tests measure antibodies in the serum—the liquid component of blood, which is where the antibodies are located. In this case, serology tests measure antibodies that specifically bind to SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. Usually when a person is infected with a virus, they develop antibodies that can "recognize" that virus, so the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies indicates that a person has been previously exposed to the virus. Broad serology testing is critical to knowing how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, since testing capacity for the virus itself has been so low.
Tests for the virus measure amounts of SARS-CoV-2 RNA—the virus's genetic material—directly, and thus will not detect the virus once a person has recovered. Thus, the majority of people who were not severely ill and did not require hospitalization, or did not have direct contact with a confirmed case, will not test positive for the virus weeks after they have recovered and can only determine if they had COVID-19 by testing for antibodies.
In most cases, for most pathogens, antibodies are also neutralizing, meaning they bind to the virus and render it incapable of infecting cells, and this protects against future infections. Immunity certificates are based on the assumption that people with antibodies specific for SARS-CoV-2 will be protected against reinfection. The problem is that we've only known that SARS-CoV-2 existed for a little over four months. Although studies so far indicate that most (but not all) patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases develop antibodies, we don't know the extent to which antibodies are protective against reinfection, or how long that protection will last. Immunity certificates cannot certify what is not known.
The limited data so far is encouraging with regard to protective immunity. Most of the patient sera tested for antibodies show reasonable titers of IgG, the type of antibodies most likely to be neutralizing. Furthermore, studies have shown that these IgG antibodies are capable of neutralizing surrogate viruses as well as infectious SARS-CoV-2 in laboratory tests. In addition, rhesus monkeys that were experimentally infected with SARS-CoV-2 and allowed to recover were protected from reinfection after a subsequent experimental challenge. These data tentatively suggest that most people are likely to develop neutralizing IgG, and protective immunity, after being infected by SARS-CoV-2.
However, not all COVID-19 patients do produce high levels of antibodies specific for SARS-CoV-2. A small number of patients in one study had no detectable neutralizing IgG. There have also been reports of patients in South Korea testing PCR positive after a prior negative test, indicating reinfection or reactivation. These cases may be explained by the sensitivity of the PCR test, and no data have been produced to indicate that these cases are genuine reinfection or recurrence of viral infection.
Complicating matters further, not all serology tests measure antibody titers. Some rapid serology tests are designed to be binary—the test can either detect antibodies or not, but does not give information about the amount of antibodies circulating. Based on our current knowledge, we cannot be certain that merely having any level of detectable antibodies alone guarantees protection from reinfection, or from a subclinical reinfection that might not cause a second case of COVID-19, but could still result in transmission to others. These unknowns remain problematic even with tests that accurately detect the presence of antibodies—which is not a given today, as many of the newly available tests are reportedly unreliable.
A Logistical and Ethical Quagmire
While most people are eager to cast off the isolation of physical distancing and resume their normal lives, mere desire to return to normality is not an indicator of whether those antibodies actually work, and no certificate can confer immune protection. Furthermore, immunity certificates could lead to some complicated logistical and ethical issues. If antibodies do not guarantee protective immunity, certifying that they do could give antibody-positive people a false sense of security, causing them to relax infection control practices such as distancing and hand hygiene.
"We should not, however, place our faith in assumptions and make return to normality contingent on an arbitrary and uninformative piece of paper."
Certificates could be forged, putting susceptible people at higher exposure risk. It's not clear who would issue them, what they would entitle the bearer to do or not do, or how certification would be verified or enforced. There are many ways in which such certificates could be used as a pretext to discriminate against people based on health status, in addition to disability, race, and socioeconomic status. Tracking people based on immune status raises further concerns about privacy and civil rights.
Rather than issuing documents confirming immune status, we should instead "re-open" society cautiously, with widespread virus and serology testing to accurately identify and isolate infected cases rapidly, with immediate contact tracing to safely quarantine and monitor those at exposure risk. Broad serosurveillance must be coupled with functional assays for neutralization activity to begin assessing how protective antibodies might actually be against SARS-CoV-2 infection. To understand how long immunity lasts, we should study antibodies, as well as the functional capabilities of other components of the larger immune system, such as T cells, in recovered COVID-19 patients over time.
We should not, however, place our faith in assumptions and make return to normality contingent on an arbitrary and uninformative piece of paper. Re-opening society, the government, and the economy depends not only on accurately determining how many people have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, but on a deeper understanding of how those antibodies work to provide protection.