Back-to-School Pandemic-Style Is a Dangerous Fantasy: Part 1

A recipe for disaster: child experimentation plus mass COVID-19 spread.

Posted Aug 03, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Despite what some want you to believe, there is growing evidence that with high probability, kids can contract and spread COVID-19. So, to make more informed decisions as some still move forward this month with plans to send our kids back to school, let’s examine a few conservative projection models sharing how a great number of students could contract COVID-19 and how fast the virus could spread in the first month of reopening schools. As I am about to share, it highly unlikely that pandemic-mode schools will provide a safe or positive environment for healthy child development or socialization.

(Note: This model starts with just one student coming back to one school with COVID-19 and is based on a factor having students carrying COVID-19 infecting three other students per week.)

 Michael W. Corrigan
Figure 1: Spread Projection Model for One School Starting with One COVID-19 Case.
Source: Michael W. Corrigan

What’s a Person to Believe?

Every week, our science community ethically continues to analyze the numerous scraps of evidence left behind on the long and winding COVID-19 war trail. As this full-frontal viral attack slowly trudges on, scientists and doctors share their findings in hopes of helping us find better ways to fight this pandemic and survive. And just when we think we might have found one reliable and valid answer (i.e., a consistent and accurate finding) to this pandemic’s many mysteries, we then begin to hear conflicting opinions coming from politicians and others who apparently feel the need to not embrace Science.

Last week’s example of this unproductive pattern was the release of a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This study shares how older children (5 to 17 years of age) possibly carry the same levels of COVID-19 as adults. And for children under 5, they might be carrying 10 to 100 times more of the virus’s genetic material in their noses than older children and adults.

This study basically provides us evidence suggesting that despite less severity of symptoms often experienced by infected children, they still possibly carry the disease at equal or much higher levels as adults. With schools closing earlier this year, and thankfully hindering our ability to determine as to what extent children contribute to the spread of this pandemic, this recent evidence is fueling renewed discussion as to if younger and older children can spread the disease at similar or greater levels as adults have. Meanwhile, within 24 hours of this news being released, the president once again informed America that “children are almost immune to the disease,” while also sharing a disclaimer that he can’t offer us assurances that holding in-person classes will be safe.

News Alert:

“More than 200 of 600 kids attending a Georgia Summer camp in late June, tested positive for COVID-19 after just six days of being together.”

Other countries that have not seen the massive spike in cases the USA has had in recent months, however, shared a consistent message that wearing masks, social distancing, and doing contact tracing equals getting better control over the coronavirus. But with so many Americans getting conflicting messages, for those just trying to get through another day in the USA it has become hard to know what to believe. To make matters worse, we seem to live in a world where confirmation bias leads us to more often believe those saying what we already think. Assuming that we will not see a national policy be put in place this year to help us become one in this fight against COVID-19, the information I share today is offered in hopes of helping state and local leaders (as well as educators, parents, and students) understand the risk we face in reopening schools.

What Could Happen? Projection Models of COVID-19 Spread in Schools Paint Grim Outlook

Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter if you believe or dismiss the president’s Nostradamus-like pandemic prediction mantra that COVID-19 will “just disappear.” Whether it’s true or false, ironically, it’s probably one of the few things he has said that all of us, every American red blue or independent, actually wishes would come true. Because in this hopefully temporary surrealistic pandemic world we live in, no matter if you believe the virus is real or even after 157,000 Americans have died from the virus you are still somehow holding on to the notion COVID-19 is a hoax, one and all are ready to return to our previous somewhat dysfunctional and less chaotic ways of life. In retrospect, returning to what we used to degradingly call the daily grind, somehow now seems like an out of reach distant Utopian wonderland, that we can only dream about all day long.

Given our collective desire to return to normalcy, at this point I suspect that even the most macho males I know would be willing to put on a pair of feminine shiny red sparkling lady pumps, click their heels three times together, and repeat, "There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home." To Toto and everyone out there reading this appeal to logic and rational decision making, I get it, folks. Like an unwanted pile of poo our pets occasionally leave on the floor as a gift for us in the morning, this situation we are in stinks every day from the minute we wake up. Thus, despite my reservations and warnings on pursuing a quick return to schools this month which I will share with you today, please know that I fully understand the various personal, economic, and political reasons why so many are pushing so hard for kids to get back inside their classrooms.

But as illustrated above in Figure 1, we are not ready to take such a bold move and the risk is too high. Figure 1’s projection model, which I developed to help educators and legislators take a deeper look at "what could happen," shows us how quickly just one case of corona-virus could multiply within a school. The possibility exists that if even one student returns to a school with COVID-19, just one student, the outcomes have the potential to be devastating to the school and community. By opening schools and not testing children for COVID-19, schools starting with one case could easily reach 256 cases in the school within one month.

Given youth often do not show signs they have COVID-19 or experience rather mild symptoms that one might think is just a cold, the virus most likely will be able to spread without detection for several weeks, or at least until the school staff or parents start showing signs of the spread reaching adults connected to the school. And when those students take the virus home, that community could easily see 768 new cases in one month. Just one school, just one student. More to come on these details.

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