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An Epidemiologist On How Safe It Is To Go Back To School


Just weeks before children normally head back to school, a growing number of them are being told, stay home; there will be no in-person school this fall. School districts from California to Georgia to Maryland are now gearing up for online-only instruction. They're citing the spike in coronavirus cases. But just how dangerous is it to send children, teachers and staff back into classrooms amid a pandemic, and why is there so much debate over that question? We have called Jennifer Nuzzo to take on those questions. She is a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Welcome.


KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. I do want to start by asking - it seems there is just maddeningly little real information about the risks to kids and how likely kids are to spread the virus. Why do we know so little at this point?

NUZZO: Yeah, it's true. I agree. There's not as much information as we'd like. We do have some studies that have generally given us the belief that kids are probably less likely to be harmed by this virus than adults and also some information to suggest that they may be less likely to transmit the virus, like they do, you know, as compared to other viruses, like influenza. But it's hard to really study because, you know, we've done these great measures where we've shut down and we've decided to stay home, and we don't fully know if we've kept kids home more and not as exposed as they would otherwise be. So it's fairly artificial circumstances.

KELLY: Yeah, I suppose kids haven't been in school since March for the most part, so it's hard to study what transmission would look like if they were. I have noticed that a lot of the studies that have been published to date have come from other countries. There was a big study that made some news out of South Korea that found kids - older kids, like, ages 10 to 19 - actually can spread the virus as well as adults, that younger kids under 10 spread it much less. How much stock do you put in studies like that?

NUZZO: Yeah, that finding that there may be an age-related effect with the older kids possibly being a more worrisome case than the younger kids, that is something that we've seen elsewhere. That said, this study - I think experts feel may not be completely generalizable in the sense that it was sick kids at home and not necessarily kids who don't have symptoms at school. But it's still important to learn from.

KELLY: The CDC says they're going to release updated guidance to deal with schools any day now. Should parents trying to figure out what to do - should we wait for that to decide what to do with kids in the fall?

NUZZO: I do think having guidance from the CDC is important. I think as school districts are wrestling with when they can open and, crucially, when they need to close, what they really need is metrics. It's not likely that we're going to get rid of this virus, so we need to really figure out at what level of infections in the community is safe to reopen, and having some clarity from CDC would be helpful. That said, parents are obviously going to have to make their own choices based on their own circumstances. You know, if you have someone at home with an underlying health condition or older relatives, you may be more worried about sending your child out. Even if your child's not possibly going to become severely ill, you might worry about bringing home the virus.

KELLY: Yeah.

NUZZO: And so I think some parental flexibility is, of course, going to be necessary.

KELLY: I'll note that you have two young children yourself. I know you're trying to navigate this along with the rest of us. What are the questions that you are most burning to get answers to?

NUZZO: Well, I have two young children who I have seen the harms of being home. And so from my perspective, not having some of the same constraints that other families have, I'm very interested in figuring out how we can get them safely back into school. That said, I, you know, very much feel for the staff who may be particularly worried about their own health and want them to feel that there are appropriate safety protocols in place so that they feel confident being there.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, are there studies underway that, even if we don't have these - all the answers we would like now, we're going to know more by the time fall gets underway?

NUZZO: Yeah. So I think we will continue to get evidence from other countries that have already reopened schools. And I do hope that we can better study what's happened in our own country. You know, day cares have not closed, and camps are ongoing, and we should very much take the opportunity to study those data and see what effects those openings have had.

KELLY: All right. That's Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Thanks so much.

NUZZO: Thanks for having me.


And just to note that the CDC released updated guidelines for schools this evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.