PEORIA — The fact that COVID-19 behaves differently in children is one reason why many officials are favoring the reopening of primary schools this fall.
"Children don’t transmit the virus as easily as adults. We’re not exactly sure why, but evidence and studies across the globe have shown us that children are not the primary source of infection, and that they, oftentimes, are not sharing it with others even when they are affected," said Dr. Terry Ho, a Peoria pediatrician. "In addition, we know that children are not getting sick at the same rate as adults. Children only represent about 6% of confirmed cases of COVID reported to the CDC."
When children do contract COVID-19, they often have different symptoms than adults, and many are asymptomatic, said Ho.
Another key deciding factor in reopening schools is the COVID-19 positivity rate in the community. In Peoria, it’s been hovering around 3%.
"If we were in Peoria, Ariz., or Florida, I’m not sure I’d be having the same conversation with you, but being in Illinois, and specifically the Tri-County region, we’ve been able to successfully manage transmission," said Ho. "We’ve kept the transmission rate low and been consistent over the last few weeks."
Because positivity rates can rise, flexibility is key to reopening, said Ho.
"I think we have to be practical and nimble, we have to be willing to change, but right now at this moment, if you ask me if I am comfortable sending my kids to school, I would say absolutely, 100% yes," he said.
Ho helped make the decision to reopen the school his children attend.
"At the beginning of June, the school approached me and other medical professionals with kids that go to that school," he said. "The plan we created may not work in other settings, but it’s what we thought would work with our kids in our facility. I share that because I think we can do this, but it should not just be a decision made by policymakers. The discussion should include health care professionals, epidemiologists, our local health department, staff and parents. Sitting together, I think we can come up with a plan that works for each and every one of us."
While in-person learning may be possible for some people at this time, it may not be right for everyone, said Ho.
"We do have to come up with alternatives, options for families, like hybrid learning or e-learning," he said. "It’s not just a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all approach. It may not look the same, but we should try to give kids the education that they deserve."
While there are risks to reopening school during a pandemic, there are also risks to keeping them closed, said Ho.
"Schools provide education and structure, they provide a safe environment. There’s a lot of social and emotional benefits that can also be protective. In my own practice, we’ve seen increased amounts of anxiety and depression, and there’s lots of concerns for the mental health of children who have been isolated at home," he said. "There’s a lot of social disparities that have been magnified due to this pandemic. There’s food insecurities, and we’re seeing racial inequities in our own communities. School helps with those things by providing a place for a kid to have a warm meal and a foundation. So essentially it’s a discussion of risk and pros vs. cons. Can we limit the risk to take advantage of the pros of school? Or can we get to a point when the risks are too high, and we should be at home? I think right now at this moment we are at a place where it would be safe to be at school."
Most kids returning to school this fall will be asked to wear face masks because doing so has been shown to be very effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
"When kids are asymptomatic and don’t know they have COVID, wearing a mask can keep them from giving it to other people," he said. "Masks allow us to do activities where we want to be closer together, like going to school or going out in public."
Unfortunately, mask wearing is a requirement some parents don’t like. Ho offered reassurance — though they may be uncomfortable, masks will not cause harm.
"There’s a lot of false information out there about what can happen from chronic mask use. Prolonged use of masks has not been shown to lead to carbon doxide toxicity or low oxygen levels," he said. "Carbon dioxide diffuses through our masks to allow for normal breathing. It doesn’t stay underneath the mask. I’ve been reminding patients and families that their health care workers wear their masks for complete shifts, 12 hours or longer, without any complications. They don’t develop high levels of carbon dioxide, they don’t experience low levels of oxygen."
To get kids used to wearing masks, begin by explaining that a mask works the same way as covering a cough or sneeze — it limits the spread of germs, said Ho.
"So you are relating it to something they do all the time," he said. "You can also have kids practice wearing masks at home. They will become more accustomed by wearing them frequently. Let kids choose their own mask, let them choose a mask that may be more fun. But I think the biggest thing is to lead by example, since children look to their parents for reassurance. If we wear a mask like we’re supposed to, they will too."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.