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Rush young kids back to school, they’re the most virus-proof citizens — experts

Children under 10 should head back to class the moment lockdown ends, says panel, but middle schools and high schools should stay shut ‘for a very long time’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A girl heading to school during the pandemic (FamVeld via iStock by Getty Images)
A girl heading to school during the pandemic (FamVeld via iStock by Getty Images)

Young children pose the lowest risk of all Israelis in terms of spreading the coronavirus, and should be rushed back to classrooms the moment the lockdown ends, a group of experts has claimed.

Doctors and academics from Hadassah Medical Center and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have sent their report to government, along with a plea to restart studies at kindergartens and elementary schools soon.

“Young children are not the main engine of transmission for this virus, and therefore we have to do everything we can to protect their ability to go and learn,” epidemiologist Ora Paltiel, one of the report’s authors, told The Times of Israel.

She said the government shouldn’t wait beyond the end of lockdown, now tentatively scheduled for mid-October, as it will be the safest moment to restart studies, given kids will have been largely isolated for weeks. Much of Israel should remain shut, but children should return, she urged.

Jerusalem’s mayor meets with young Israeli twins going into first grade at a school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

She added that as a precaution, children should be divided in “capsules” smaller than regular classes, for both studies and after-school programs, known as tzaharonim.

Paltiel said that children show very different patterns in terms of the virus up until age 10, but beyond that age, are as likely to catch and transmit the virus as adults. In view of this, she said, parents of tweens and teens should brace themselves for a long stint with kids at home.

Ora Paltiel, professor at the Braun School of Public Health and Department of Hematology at Hadassah-Hebrew University (Jared Bernstein)

“For middle school and high school, the rates do not support the opening of school, and won’t for a very long time,” said Paltiel.

She added that the September restart of studies would not have been a disaster had policymakers understood the big difference between younger and older children.

“If we put everyone in one basket, we’ll never send anyone back to school,” she said.

The new research document comes as the decision to reopen schools on September 1 is widely blamed for Israel’s sky-high infection rate, which over the last week has topped the global charts, at 683 new infections per million citizens, almost triple the next-highest country, Spain.

But according to the report the “pointing of fingers” at the education system is wrong, because almost half of the children have a low likelihood of spreading infection.

“It’s clear ages zero to nine are protected from the devastating results of disease,” said Paltiel. “They get it less, they get it in a mild way, and we have some evidence that if infected they transmit it less.”

Last week, America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that younger children are only half as likely to become infected as teenagers. Paltiel said her conclusions are based on various studies which found that young children, often defined as up to age 10, are much less likely to become infected than adults, and on observations about infection patterns in Israel.

These include the fact that young children don’t tend to give the virus to teachers but infection commonly happens in the other direction. The researchers also observed that in Bnei Brak, infected children play a disproportionately low role in spreading the virus within families.

Workers disinfect a classroom at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Young children aren’t super spreaders, and the evidence we have indicates that they transmit it less than others,” said Paltiel, professor at the Braun School of Public Health and Department of Hematology at Hadassah-Hebrew University.

Paltiel’s group believes that young children are currently “suffering” from the steps being taken to fight the virus, even though they aren’t being significantly harmed by the virus itself or causing much COVID-related harm to others.

It said that policymakers should be guided by this, and by the importance of educational settings for children’s development and mental health; the need to fight inequality as poorer families are harder hit by the cancellation of studies; and the need to help parents get back to work.

For middle and high schools to return, Paltiel thinks that case numbers need to drop significantly, and changes need to be made to infrastructure and to the approach to teaching. “We need classrooms for smaller classes, to check there’s ventilation, and to reduce the number of contacts kids have with other kids through the day,” she said.

An Israeli teacher teaches her students from her home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, in Mevaseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, April 19, 2020. (Flash90)

High school students are often in different class groups for different subjects based on abilities, which boosts the number of people they are in contact with daily. To resolve this, Paltiel said schools may need to change the timetable so students study just with their math group for two weeks, then for a stint only with their science group and so on.

Mask-wearing in middle and high schools should be stricter, with sound systems installed in classrooms if teachers struggle to be heard while masked, Paltiel said.

“If the teacher needs to have a microphone to be heard, but then can still wear a mask, that’s an improvement,” she said.

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