Featured News Is it safe for kids to return to school?

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Thu, 14 May 2020

Is it safe for kids to return to school?

Image: Ivan Aleksic

Research by a James Cook University scientist shows it is safe for children to go back to school – but the rest of us will have to take extra precautions as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Emma McBryde, Professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology and Modelling at JCU’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, led the study.

“We modelled contact rates across all age groups including children – how often they come in contact with other people at school - and then applied a model of susceptibility and infectiousness in the under 20s,” she said.

The scientists then looked at five scenarios; from a continuation of current conditions through to a return to pre COVID-19 activities.

“We estimate that the reproduction number (the number of people who an infected person will pass the virus on to) is now less than one after the lockdown interventions, meaning the virus will die out,” said Professor McBryde.

She said if schools open and the lockdown continues for everyone else, the researchers estimate that the reproduction number actually falls slightly, because of the reduced home-based contact.

Professor McBryde said the study also showed that schools opening plus the addition of lockdown easing led to an increased reproduction number.

“If people return to work, even with appropriate social distancing, it will increase again to just below one, assuming strict physical distancing continued to occur. If we ease up on physical distancing, it is very likely to go above one again putting us at risk of a second wave,” she said.

Professor McBryde said modelling showed that mixing between adults aged between 30 and 50 at home, work and in the community is the major source of transmission.

“These age groups are the greatest contributor to transmission because they are more infectious than the younger groups and have greater numbers of contacts, typically, than older groups.

“We concluded that school-closure has minimal impact on COVID-19 transmission.  Reduction of out-of-home contacts and workplace closures has the greater impact,” she said.

Professor McBryde said reopening workplaces and removing lockdown without substantial changes to distancing behaviour would likely lead to losing control of the virus.

“Schools are not the problem here. But it is very clear that ongoing strategies and vigilance regarding physical distancing need to happen in the workplace and in places where adults gather,” she said.

Please note: In the interests of getting important information to the public quickly amid rapidly changing circumstances, this paper has not been peer-reviewed by academic staff external to JCU or the co-authors’ organisation or institute.


Professor Emma McBryde
E: emma.mcbryde@jcu.edu.au