State: Students low risk for COVID-19

Research suggests in-school transmission is low

IN CRAFTING A BACK-TO-SCHOOL PLAN for the fall, the Baker administration is relying on nascent medical research suggesting children under 20 are less likely to both contract COVID-19 and transmit it to others.

Dr. Sandra  Nelson, an infectious diseases specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who worked with the Baker administration on its guidance for reopening schools, said the available evidence suggests children are less likely to get COVID-19, less likely to become seriously ill if they do contract the virus, and less likely to transmit it to others.

“Based on the combination of health and safety requirements and rigorous protocols that we are putting in place for the fall, we believe the risk of transmission in schools is likely lower than the risks of transmission in many other settings,” says the state’s guidance. “Furthermore, based on available data and effective implementation of critical health and safety practices, the rate of in-school transmissions has been low.”

The administration is not yet saying students will return to school in the fall; instead, it is urging school districts to plan for three contingencies — a return to school; a hybrid model with students alternating in weekly, daily, or half-day shifts between school and remote learning; and a continuation of remote learning. State officials say final decisions on the reopening of schools, school transportation, and school sports will come later this summer.

The guidance, designed to reassure parents nervous about COVID-19, is based on limited research in a fast-changing area of study. Nelson acknowledged the studies that have been done generally cover small groups of people. But she said the research indicates there is a marked difference in transmission rates between adults and children. Adults, she said, are far more likely to infect children than the other way around, which is the exact opposite pattern from influenza.

“There are certainly limitations to this,” she said at a State House press conference. “There are concerns that part of the reason for that may be that kids just don’t get COVID, so if they’re not getting COVID at the same rate maybe we don’t know yet about transmissions.”

Nelson said the research is fairly clear that the shutdown of schools on March 17 in Massachusetts played a relatively minor role in curtailing the spread of COVID-19.

The state guidance includes footnotes with links to a series of studies from around the world focusing on schools and COVID-19 transmission. The studies indicate students are less likely to become infected, even when they’ve been exposed to someone with the virus. Children who do become infected are also more likely not to exhibit any symptoms.

In Massachusetts, the rate of COVID-19 infections among people age 19 or less is 356 per 100,000, which is the lowest rate for any age category. For the 20-29 age group, which has the second-lowest rate, the rate is 1,430 per 100,000. Children 19 and under also have had just 92 hospitalizations and zero deaths since the start of the pandemic.

If students do return to schools in the fall, state education officials said they will be required to wear face coverings, wash their hands regularly, and work in classrooms configured with desks faced in the same direction 6 feet apart or, where that’s not possible, no less than 3 feet apart.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Six feet is the standard for social distancing used by the US Centers for Disease Control and the Baker administration but the World Health Organization and many European countries have adopted 3 feet. In a low-risk setting such as a school, Nelson said, the difference in risk between 3 and 6 feet is minimal.

State officials said temperature checks will not be conducted by schools, largely because of the potential for a large number of false positives and negatives. The officials also said in-school COVID-19 testing is not being considered.