Bucking the Crowd: Herd Immunity and Your Kids

Is it safe to send them to school? And should you?

Posted Aug 25, 2020

When my kids were toddlers, almost everyone in their Montessori preschool classroom caught chicken pox all at once. One after another, they fell like a train of dominoes the week before Thanksgiving, and I resigned myself to a  particularly rotten holiday with two cranky, itchy kids and no relief in sight. At least not for me; for them I stocked up on calamine lotion, baby aspirin, oatmeal baths and popsicles.

As it turned out, my kids didn't get the pox until Christmas. which was when I first heard the term herd immunity in connection with the Thanksgiving miniepidemic. "Our kids didn't get invited to the chicken pox party," said Lee, a friend who taught at the UW Nursing School. We spent a lot of time together at preschool, playdates, and sleepovers but I was flabbergasted when she explained the sudden cluster of cases; the deliberate exposure to the virus, which had. initially appeared in the higher grade.

Theoretically, once a sufficient number of people got the pox, herd immunity would immunize most of the lower school against it. "As you can see," Lee remarked dryly shortly after we weathered the pox on our holidays together, "it only delayed it a few weeks."  A couple of decades later a vaccine against chicken pox came along, but back then herd immunity was a popular idea among many pediatricians.

We hear more about herd immunity in these pandemic times; it's trending on social media, the pros and antis taunting each other because that's how trends get trendier, but as the nation struggles with how or whether to reopen its schools, the notion of inducing Covid-19 by intentionally exposing children to it is gaining a following, at least on line.

Largely ignored is the paucity of data about kids and the disease: There was a statistically small but chilling number of reports about a Kawasaki-like variant of the virus that attacks the walls of coronary arteries in children.

It's thought but not proven by many reputable studies that children under 10 are largely immune to contracting the virus, although the facts are not indisputably in about whether they can infect others. Demographics (the ages and locations of those who test positive or require hospitalization) only tell part of the story. We must also consider the potential transmission between kids and other, more vulnerable adults, from teachers to school bus drivers, Another factor for families to worry about is the potential for damaging aftereffects of even asymptomatic survivors of all ages that suggest neurological, cognitive and psychological sequelae. 

Back when chicken pox parties were widespread, before the development of a vaccine, the risks of the disease were minimized by most pediatricians, who were more concerned about mumps. Best to get them over with boys before puberty, they warned; they can make a man sterile. My son's childhood vaccines included mumps, so I never worried about that, and polio had long ceased to be a threat, but when it was, no parent ever knowingly exposed a child to it.

I can understand the anxiety parents feel about sending their children to school in the midst of a pandemic. I would want a great deal more assurance that every safey precaution, protection and procedure was instituted and monitored for compliance before I even considered it. But I can also empathize with the quandary faced not only by the fortunate families in well-prepared and often privileged school districts but also the struggling single parent I once was who faced another quandary: She couldn't support her kids if she couldn't work.

Just sending them back and hoping for the best may be the default position of many parents. Waiting past the traditional autumn reopening until the expected fall surge has come and hopefully gone and more progress has been achieved toward a vaccine is another possibility. 

One more semester of online learning and careful reintegration in redesigned quarters may delay some of their normative social and educational progress, but  kids are adaptable and can catch up later, when the danger has passed.

Meanwhile, intentionally exposing them in an unsafe environment to a virus about which we still know so little makes no more sense to me than telling a toddler to go play in traffic.