The benefits of children attending school outweigh the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, although cases in children are set to soar in the autumn, said a new report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), published on Thursday (8 July).
The report draws upon and updates evidence presented in the previous ECDC reports on the same topic released in 2020.
It found that in the coming months, COVID-19 cases in children are likely to rise more than in the increasingly vaccinated adults’ population, most notably for the Delta variant, which was not factored into previous reports.
The report underscores that children of all ages are “susceptible to and can transmit SARS-CoV-2,” but that cases in younger children appear to lead to onward transmission “less frequently than cases in older children and adults”.
It also notes that, according to surveillance data, children aged between 1-18 years also have much lower rates of hospitalisation, severe disease requiring intensive hospital care, and death than all other age groups, although the long-term consequences of contracting the virus in the paediatric population remains unclear.
By the time schools reopen for the new school year, children and adolescents will have become the age groups with the lowest rates of COVID-19 vaccination coverage in the EU.
Therefore, in the absence of strict adherence to effective public health mitigation measures, concentrated circulation of COVID-19 is “to be expected”, including outbreaks in this age group, the report concludes.
However, despite this rising risk, the general consensus remains that the decision to close schools to control the COVID-19 pandemic should be used only as a last resort.
This is due to the “negative physical, mental and educational impacts of proactive school closures on children, as well as the economic impact on society more broadly,” the report said.
“Although school closures could contribute to a reduction in COVID-19 transmission as a measure of last resort, the closures in themselves are insufficient to prevent community transmission in the absence of other non-pharmaceutical interventions,” the report concluded.
In a press release accompanying the report, ECDC director Andrea Ammon said this report underlines that the “benefits of keeping schools open outweigh those of closure, since interruptions have a negative impact on children’s physical and mental well-being and education”.
Nevertheless, she highlighted that, given the continued risk of transmission among unvaccinated children, it is “imperative that there is a high level of preparedness in educational systems for the school year 2021−2022”.
It is therefore essential that clear testing strategies are established to ensure the timely testing of symptomatic cases, detection and isolation of cases, and the tracing and quarantining of their contacts.
In addition, non-pharmaceutical interventions in school settings will continue to be essential in preventing the spread of the virus, she said.
Commenting on the report, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that “protecting the most vulnerable in our society has been a top priority throughout the crisis.”
“The prolonged closure of schools around the EU has had a negative impact on the health of our children and adolescents. It has led to issues such as social isolation, psychological distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms – this is of course of great concern,” she pointed out.
“We all want to make sure that children can continue to go to school and live their lives in the safest possible way.”
To do so, measures in schools such as physical distancing and other means to reduce transmission risks will “continue to prove essential to prevent transmission and keep our schools open, in particular with the Delta variant circulating increasingly”, Kyriakides added.
Mariya Gabriel, the Commissioner for Education and Youth, said children and teenagers have been “hit hard” by school closures and distance learning during this pandemic.
“As we are preparing for the school year ahead, the ECDC report comes at a vital moment. It must be our priority to safeguard our children’s health and wellbeing,” she said, adding that measures “must be adapted to prevent transmission as well as to provide children with a safe learning and teaching environment.”
The report comes on the back of a heightened debate about vaccination strategies in children.
The Italian technical-scientific committee for the pandemic emergency (CTS) has recently urged authorities to focus the vaccination campaign on children aged between 12 and 18, while the topic remains more contentious elsewhere in the EU.