Are schools the safest place for your kids?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - As students start to come back to school after the holidays, we’re asking that question again, is it safe?

Are reopening schools this spring the best option? The safest option for kids?

To answer that I spoke to Deputy Health Officer Mark Fox.

"We can't say for sure whether it truly was based on classroom transmission, alone, or even primarily, but certainly in that age group, there was a lot of transmissions," Mark Fox, Ph.D., St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer

With most local school districts educating at least 1,000 students, the fear of coronavirus spread is high.

Among parents...

"It was a little scary at first," Alejandra Sanchez, who has a son in Knox Schools said.

"Everything is really scary," Autumn Cox, who has a daughter and River Valley said.

"What are we going to do when they do decide to go back to school," Devan Wallen, another parent of a Knox Schools student said.

Teachers...

"At first I was nervous about it," Katie Landgraf, a 2nd and 3rd-grade teacher at St. Mary's in Niles said.

“I was very concerned as many people were at the beginning of this," Sara Gillen, a Prairie View kindergarten teacher said.

"There's just a lot of unknowns with everything," Mark Schellinger, a New Prairie High School history teacher said.

Even students...

"All of us needs to clean very well because so we can like do the sides of the legs so we don’t spread COVID-19 around us because you’ll get very sick," One St. Mary's student said.

"You don’t know what could happen. The whole world knows that to anything can change just like that it all has," Gunnar Wagner, a Knox High School student said.

But are there really higher rates of transmission in K-12 schools? Or is it just fear? The answer is complicated.

“I think just in general, that, from Notre Dame all the way down through the k through 12, schools, we've seen very little evidence of classroom-based transmission. We've seen more transmission at the level of high school, much less at the elementary school level," Dr. Fox said. "and yet, it's hard to pin down how much of that is truly school-based transmission, versus those same high school students gathering, you know, for extracurriculars, or just social gatherings outside of school altogether.”

The issue has to do with the imperfect contact tracing system. It’s hard to know for sure how many cases are really coming from the schools or just a local restaurant.

"The people who come in and out of a restaurant, the customers who come in and out, we don't have a way to capture that. If you came up positive, we would ask about your exposures over, you know, the preceding, you know, several days," he said. "But that, you know, it does become a bit of a fishing expedition.”

Although transmission levels in schools aren’t high by any count, myths that circulated last summer suggesting those under 18 are less likely to spread the virus, are somewhat false.

"The myth on the street was that under 18, they don't spread very efficiently. Much cleaner data is identified that it's really under age five or six, they don't spread it as efficiently. And in that five to 10 year age range, again, is probably intermediate but beyond age 10. They, they transmit it as efficiently as adults do," he said.

However, a new strain out of the UK and now in the U.S. proves otherwise.

"Does spread pretty efficiently among kids from what the UK data suggests. And so, the contagiousness of that, even in the pediatric age range is going to pose a significant challenge," he said.

One thing is for sure, schools are not the public spaces deputy health officers like Dr. Fox are worried about.

"It’s mostly been intentional gatherings, like wedding receptions, birthday parties, things of that nature. But again, it's because we have more of a defined denominator," he said.

So students especially under the age of 10 aren’t the biggest transmitters, but what about the safeness of schools and school buildings?

Coming up this Thursday, our team is going inside Rochester schools and getting down to the issue at hand, are schools really safe for your kids?

If you have a story idea or questions regarding a local school district, reach out to us at Learningcurve@abc57.com.

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