Schools are low risk for Covid, says research paper

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Schools are low risk for Covid, says research paper

A teacher meets his students virtually in a classroom at Hanter Elementary School in Yongin, Gyeonggi, last year. [YONHAP]

A teacher meets his students virtually in a classroom at Hanter Elementary School in Yongin, Gyeonggi, last year. [YONHAP]

 
Weeks before Korea’s school year begins, the nation’s top infectious disease expert suggested in a research paper that classrooms should provide in-person learning, stressing that keeping kids at home was “costly at both the individual and societal levels.”
 
The English-language paper, entitled “Children with Covid-19 after Reopening of Schools, South Korea,” was published in the journal of Pediatric Infection & Vaccine late last month, but only recently caught the attention of local media, as schools are about to reopen soon.
 
The paper’s co-authors included Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), and researchers from the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Hallyum University College of Medicine.
 
Unless a major cluster of coronavirus cases arises, schools nationwide are expected to open in early March as usual, though how exactly has yet to be decided.  
 
Students last year took turns going to school for in-person learning, while the rest were ordered to stay at home and engage in online education. One-third or two-thirds of the student body were usually allowed on school premises on any given day, depending on the number of new infections their neighborhoods were seeing.  
 
When large-scale clusters arose, schools nearby were entirely shut for several days. Very few students caught the virus at school.  
 
The logic behind the strict guidelines was that young kids could be super-spreaders, given their vigorous physical activities. Yet in the paper, Jeong and other researchers said schools are not a high-risk setting for Covid-19 transmission, while hinting that school closures might have caused more harm than good.
 
“The evidence for the benefit of school closures in response to Covid-19 is limited, while this approach is costly at both the individual and societal levels,” they wrote. “The transmission of Covid-19 in children is likely to relate to households, cram schools, private lessons and multi-use facilities with limited access to infection control practices.”
 
They concluded that in order to “protect children’s rights and meet their basic needs,” the government should shift the focus of virus control away from school closures.
 
The study was conducted by analyzing 127 cases of Covid-19 infections in children aged between three and 18 who were diagnosed with the virus between May 1 to July 12 last year, around the time schools reopened.  
 
Of these cases, 59 children (46 percent) were exposed to the virus through relatives, followed by 18 children (14 percent) who were infected at hagwon (private cram school) or private lessons and eight children (6 percent) at “multi-use facilities.” Only three children (2 percent) caught the virus at school, the authors wrote.
 
In Korea, multi-use facilities normally refer to places like movie theaters, bakeries, public bathhouses and internet cafes, among others, that many people can use.
 
Park Yeong-jun, head of epidemiological investigations at the KDCA’s Central Disease Control Headquarters, said Thursday that the study was carried out to study virus transmission in schools, adding that the low infection rate was the result of schools’ strict compliance with government guidelines.  
 
BY LEE SUNG-EUN, LEE TAE-YUN   [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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