Coronavirus and Children

When it first started in December, the novel coronavirus came with a massive disclaimer, which read “Caution: Just a Cold Unless Elderly or Immunocompromised.” And for a while, that seemed to be true. Coronavirus was cracked up to be a nasty cold that, like the regular ole’ flu, was only serious for the elderly or those with preexisting health conditions that worsened the symptoms. And the facts and figures certainly seemed to support that, at least for a while. Death rates were directly correlated to ages of those infected; COVID-19 was only deadly for those over 60. And then, it became deadly for those with asthma, with heart conditions, with other infections that pre-existed that of the virus.

Once Italy was hit hard and fast, though, things started to seem a bit more dire. Forty-year-olds, those who hadn’t gotten “over the hill” yet, grad students, undergrads, they all started getting sicker and sicker, until eventually we began to see that coronavirus wasn’t discriminating against athletes or students or anyone; some people simply got it worse than others.

Now it’s true that death rates are higher for those over 60, and that they also have some correlation for those with health conditions that worsen the symptoms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Members of those demographics certainly have worse odds of a case of COVID-19 turning deadly, quickly. But en masse, there seems to be a pervasive myth that if you aren’t old or immunocompromised, you’re invincible to the virus. And that’s exactly what it is: a myth.

Now that July has rolled around and students from ages 3 to 22 (and older) are eagerly anticipating news of the school year and what it may look like, it’s important to examine the reality of how coronavirus has and will continue to impact kids.

On July 20, Missouri Governor Mike Parson said in an interview, “These kids have got to get back to school...They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said to FOX news,“We know that children contract and have the virus at far lower incidence than any other part of the population, and we know that other countries around the world have reopened their schools and done so successfully.”

And they’re both right, at least in part. But let’s take a closer look.

Parson is correct in saying that children will get sick if schools reopen. It’s rather a guarantee; such a guarantee, in fact, that Missouri schools have sent parents of children death waivers to sign, which absolve the school and state from liability for the death of a child due to schools reopening. If schools reopen, parents are required to send their children to a school or to homeschool them. See the problem? So Parson’s claim that children “[are] not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it” isn’t totally true. In fact, when coupled with flu season and the fact that children carry fewer antibodies than adults, it could well mean that many children will die if schools reopen. Regardless of whether they’re considered “low risk” or not, by reopening schools given the state of coronavirus in America, officials are signing children’s death certificates. And they know that, which is why they’re asking parents to sign waivers.

Furthermore, children are known to play amplifying roles in the spread of influenza-type infections, especially those carried by respiratory droplets like the coronavirus is. Think kindergarteners are going to religiously wear face masks? Think “cover your cough” posters will protect kids? Think again. And when these kids “go home to get over it,” they’re not going home to a bubble of isolation. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re going home to parents and siblings and possibly grandparents, all of whom then go to work or school or the grocery store and interact with innumerable other people. There’s a reason schools closed in March, and it’s clearly because exposing kids to a pandemic isn’t as innocuous as politicians are trying to market it as.

As for DeVos’s statement, yes, it is true that other countries have reopened schools. In fact, some countries are operating nearly normally. Right now, though, in the midst of this epidemic, the United States can’t be lumped in with other countries. Other countries had a greater response, a slower reopening, and a more unified way of dealing with SARS-CoV-2. The U.S. didn’t follow those successful models; we reopened Disneyworld instead. States are bickering over the constitutionality of mask mandates, weaponizing science, and protesting for swifter reopening. The reality is, we simply aren’t anywhere near where other countries are in terms of eliminating the threat of coronavirus in our country. With a much greater population, a death toll ranking 7th in the world when adjusted per million people, and no end in sight, we’re looking at sending children to the front lines of a global health crisis.

As the general public, we haven’t even been able to rely on adults to take the virus seriously, to use PPE and to social distance or isolate. How could we put that onus on teachers and students? The fact is that we can only rely on two things: firstly, that kids will be kids, and that means that social distancing and PPE are simply not enough to keep them safe; secondly, schools simply aren’t safe in the midst of a pandemic. The rest is variable; there’s not enough research on the novel virus yet to know how it may impact children for years to come, even if they survive the infection. And, though most survive after having contracted the disease, many have died, too. There is simply too much unknown and not enough data to guarantee the safety of children if they return to school, and that should be a risk we are simply unwilling to take.

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