Will bringing groups of kids back together spur Covid-19 outbreaks? How much at risk are teachers and staff? How often are children bringing the virus home to their families? There are still a lot of unanswered questions—and the coming weeks and months will bring an onslaught of new data. But while we’re waiting and watching, there is information available from a small subset of schools that never really closed—those that provided emergency care for the children of essential workers. What lessons do these childcare facilities offer so far?
It is possible to bring children together without spreading the virus—but there are no guarantees. Children can and do become infected with Covid-19 and pass it on to others. But in emergency childcare facilities run by the YMCA—serving up to 40,000 children ages 1-14—it didn’t happen that often. The same was true of the learning centers that served 10,000 children of essential workers in New York City, and many other daycare centers that stayed open throughout the spring and summer. That doesn’t mean no cases showed up at all—they did. But on the whole, the data shows low infection rates of both students and staff at these facilities, very few instances of child-to-adult transmission, and particularly small numbers of clusters within any given facility.
Mitigation strategies work, but it isn’t totally clear which ones work the best. By now we all know the set of core strategies that help stop the spread of Covid-19: masking, social distancing, air flow, hand washing. Some facilities, like those in New York City, prioritized masking, requiring masks for all adults and children, even those as young as three. Others (like the YMCA) enforced masking only for adults. All did their best to keep children clustered in small, consistent groups and used some form of symptom and temperature checking. It isn’t easy to discern which strategy, if any, is the single most important, but the bottom line is that these facilities generally adopted a combination of mitigation approaches, so that when one inevitably fell down (three-year-olds are probably not keeping their masks on all the time), others were in place.
There have been cases (and some true outbreaks) in schools and daycare facilities, but it’s important to keep them in perspective. We’ve all heard some scary stories in the news, like the overnight camp in Georgia with an enormous outbreak or the daycare centers in Utah where children spread the virus to their teachers and family members. But it’s important to put these cases in perspective: There are many, many more camps, emergency learning facilities, and daycare centers that have stayed open and did not result in outbreaks (or even have any cases at all). And while transmission rates in the surrounding area certainly matter, emergency centers like those in New York served high-risk communities in the height of their local surges, while still managing to keep children and staff safe.
There are still benefits to being together in person, even with distance (and masks!). Many parents have understandably wondered if it’s even worth sending kids back to daycare or school with so many strategies in place to stop the spread of the virus. Is school really school if everyone is distanced and wearing masks? Will kids be traumatized by this weirdo version of school? For young children, could it put them off school altogether? Of course, you know your kid best, and some children will undoubtedly find these circumstances more challenging and upsetting than others. But the stories from emergency childcare facilities across the country suggest that dedicated educators have managed to create warm, joyful learning communities, even from behind their masks. As parents, we can take (a little?) comfort in reminding ourselves that kids are resilient and adaptable—probably more so than we are.
Stay informed: Jessica Malaty Rivera is an epidemiologist and mom who leads science communication for The Covid Tracking Project. Follow her on Instagram (@jessicamalatyrivera) for clear, evidence-based updates on everything we’re learning about Covid-19. For the latest information on what’s happening as more schools reopen, check out COVID Explained.
“On the whole, the data shows low infection rates of both students and staff at these facilities, very few instances of child-to-adult transmission, and particularly small numbers of clusters within any given facility.”
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