Within 11 days of schools opening, dozens of students and teachers have gotten COVID-19: 'I truly wish we'd kept our children home'

Robin Utrecht/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty ImagesA kid attends school in the Netherlands while wearing a face mask on May 14, 2020.
  • As US schools begin reopening, dozens of students and school employees are testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Hundreds of students and some teachers have been ordered to quarantine.
  • Recent research suggests that children may spread the coronavirus as efficiently as adults.
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Joel Barnes wanted schools to reopen in his Mississippi city.

A retired teacher, Barnes knew that his own kids missed seeing their friends and learning in person. Their district in Corinth was taking precautions: 7th and 8th graders were to stay in a special wing of the high school, and there were virtual learning options, too.

So Barnes and his wife Lindsay decided to send their four children back.

“It’s just one of those hard decisions,” Barnes told Business Insider. “You’re danged if you do, danged if you don’t.”

The kids – his youngest is in 2nd grade while his oldest is a high-school freshman – started school on July 27. By the end of the first week, the district announced that a high-school student had tested positive. Two more were diagnosed the following week. Then two more. Then a student at the middle school. And then an elementary school employee.

“I did not expect it to go up so quickly – within a week and a half of school starting,” Barnes said.

At least 115 students who had close contact with the sick people in the Corinth school district have been sent home to quarantine for 14 days, according to CNN. Barnes’ 14-year-old son is one of them.

“I’m so angry,” Lindsay Barnes said on Thursday. “We tried to pull him yesterday and the school wouldn’t let us.”

Schools reopenAdam Robison/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/APCorinth Elementary School students exit their bus wearing masks to protect against coronavirus, as they arrive for their first day back to school, July 27, 2020 in Corinth, Mississippi.

Corinth’s experience does not stand alone. As schools across the US begin to reopen, several districts have already seen outbreaks of COVID-19.

In Georgia’s Cherokee school district, three students have tested positive and a kindergarten class was sent home after a teacher displayed symptoms. A handful of employees at Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish school district tested positive two days into their school year, and at least six students in Southern Indiana tested positive after their first weeks back, too. Four school districts in Central Indiana, meanwhile, have identified at least seven cases since schools began reopening last week.

Together, these small outbreaks highlight the risks of reopening schools while the US continues to report high daily case numbers. (The country’s seven-day average still exceeds 50,000 new cases per day.) More than 80% of Americans live in a county where a school of 500 students or more would see at least one infection of COVID-19 within the first week of reopening, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

Evidence suggests children can spread coronavirus like adults

Although kids are less likely to get severe coronavirus cases, mounting evidence suggests they can spread the virus. Most children have the same amount of virus in their upper respiratory tracts as adults do, according to a research letter published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, and children under 5 may have between 10 and 100 times more virus than adults (though this doesn’t necessarily mean they spread the virus more efficiently).

A study published last week found that US school closures from March to May reduced the weekly rate of new cases in the US by 62%.

According to a July survey, 60% of US parents – and 76% of parents of colour – support schools’ plans to delay reopening.

Although Barnes was initially part of the other 40%, the recent spike in cases has rattled his family.

His son reported that some of his high-school peers – and even his teachers – were wearing masks either improperly or not at all. Barnes said that lax approach to mask-wearing is reflected across Corinth.

As of Thursday, his three younger children – all elementary-school-aged girls – were still going in. He doesn’t blame the school district for the outbreak; he blames a lack of political leadership from officials in his state and the federal government.

“With the way these cases have been handled at this point, I truly wish we’d kept our children home,” Barnes said.

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