28 Aug 2020

Back to School: What We’ve Learned About COVID-19

Just as students, teachers, and staff in the US prepare to head back to school, the CDC reported a COVID-19 outbreak at a Georgia overnight summer camp. Nearly half of the camp tested positive within just a few days of the camp re-opening and ultimately 260 campers and staff were infected out of the 344 individuals that were tested. What makes this news even more disturbing is that the camp reportedly adhered to the state regulations for opening an overnight camp during the pandemic and furthermore followed most of the CDC’s recommendations. The procedures included requiring campers and counselors to have negative COVID tests prior to attending camp, campers were divided into smaller groups to prevent spread, and all counselors and staff wore masks. However, there was no requirement for the young campers to wear masks, there was vigorous daily cheering and singing, and indoor activities lacked proper ventilation. The CDC noted that the report demonstrates children of all ages are susceptible to COVID-19 infection and “contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

As schools across the country are reopening amidst our growing health crisis, there is great debate around how to do so safely. The CDC previously stated that limited data suggests children are less likely to get seriously ill from it COVID-19 should they contract it. Unfortunately, children’s capability to transmit the virus is largely unknown.

A recent New York Times article cited two fundamental uncertainties that US schools currently face: “No nation has attempted to send children back to school with the virus surging at levels as high as America’s, and scientific research about COVID-19 transmission in classroom environments is limited.”

While doctors and scientists have learned a great deal about COVID-19 in a short amount of time, there continue to be many unknowns about the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported the coronavirus can linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces (airborne transmission), which they earlier had stated was “doubtful.” Still, the WHO emphasizes that most person-to-person transmission occurs via expelled droplets from coughs or sneezes that are inhaled in the air, or droplets that land on a surface that is later touched by someone who subsequently touches their face.

The WHO also confirmed that the virus can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic. They stated, “Infected people can transmit the virus both when they have symptoms and when they don’t have symptoms.” This fact, perhaps more than any other, makes COVID-19 prevention such a challenge. When people feel no symptoms, they are more apt to go out and interact with others and less likely to follow recommended safety guidelines. While health screenings and temperature checks are an important first line of defense, they cannot be expected to weed out asymptomatic individuals, and further, people without symptoms are unlikely to take a COVID test unless required to.

Despite all the unknowns, there are several safety measures that have been proven to reduce risk. As schools reopen, administrators must act on that knowledge to protect students, teachers and staff. Practices like regular handwashing, improved ventilation, sanitization of surfaces, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks have all been recommended by experts to help prevent the spread of the virus. (Learn more best practices by reading How to Protect Teachers Returning to the Front Lines.)

Schools should also take advantage of the latest technological advancements to ensure that no one who has signs of illness can enter the facility. For example, health screening kiosks can take a person’s temperature touch-free in seconds and location and proximity tracking can be used to identify, contain and address hotspots, as well as assist with contact tracing.

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