Corbella: The stats show kids should return to school — without worry

Students wait in line outside St. Francis High School for their diploma exam on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

As the start of school fast approaches, the

anxiety levels of parents

— who normally look forward to their kids getting back into a school routine — are spiking.

Not surprisingly, those commercials from Staples declaring back to school as

“the most wonderful time of the year” for parents

have not been playing at all, let alone constantly as in years past.

Just how worried, however, should parents be about COVID-19 affecting their child or children’s health?

In short — not very. Let’s let the numbers do the talking to start.

According to the federal government’s

COVID-19 Epidemiology Summary

as of Aug. 16, Canada has had 122,087 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — with 9,026 deaths for a death rate of 7.4 per cent.

Only 9,909 children under the age of 19 have tested positive for COVID in Canada and one child has passed away. The death of any child is a terrible tragedy. However, the only thing we know about this particular child is that she was female. We don’t know her age, whether she had underlying medical conditions. Nothing.

On the government website, the death rate for Canadians 19 and under is listed as zero per cent or 0.010 per cent, according to my calculations.

Dr. Stephen Freedman, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Calgary, says when you consider that the COVID infection rate is likely

eight to 10 fold

greater than that confirmed by testing, it’s more like the death rate in Canada for kids under 19 is one in 100,000 or 0.001 per cent.

“We know, in general, that children often — even when they are infected with COVID — do not develop symptoms,” said Freedman. “And those who do develop symptoms tend to be extremely mild.

“I’m looking at this from a global level, so when you ask the question, ‘How safe is COVID-19 for kids?’ In the grand scheme of things, it’s very safe. Children rarely have complications when they’re infected with COVID.

“The big concern for parents should be their own health as well as the health of other at-risk individuals or high-risk individuals. So grandparents, for example, immunocompromised individuals whether they’re in the house or they come in contact with the children.

“At a public health level, we worry a lot about spread in the community. So if all of a sudden lots of children get sick and they have mild symptoms, who are they going to give it to? That becomes a big question.”

 Dr. Stephen Freedman, UCalgary researcher to lead global study to improve diagnosis and treatment for children infected by COVID-19.

When you consider that most parents with school-aged kids tend to be on the younger side, there’s not much risk there either.

According to the federal government’s figures, only nine people between the ages of 20 and 29 have died from COVID-19 in Canada, with a total of 84 spending time in the intensive care unit. For those between the ages of 30 and 39, there have been 11 deaths and 115 who spent time in the ICU. For those aged 40 to 49, there have been 50 deaths. Again, all of these deaths are tragic, but when you factor in that the infection rate is likely much higher than those who have been confirmed, the risk for young parents of young children is virtually nil.

Freedman wants to make it clear that this “doesn’t mean we should encourage children to get sick because your child still might be sick with a runny nose, a cough and a fever and no parent wants that for their child.”

Fair enough. But the lesson in panic that seems to be overtaking the back-to-school story all over the world really needs to be put into perspective.

“One of the big worries to a lot of parents is, what if your child can’t go to school for two weeks because they’ve gotten infected?” asks Freedman. “How are you going to manage that if you are a single parent working outside of the home or both parents work outside of the home. Who’s going to be at home?”

It’s not likely to be grandma or grandpa, since the older you get the more deadly this disease gets.

“We worry about the child getting infected, but not because of their own health,” reiterates Freedman. “The child is most likely to experience a mild, short-lived illness or even be asymptomatic, but it’s really who they’re going to give it to.”

As we know, however, other factors have to be weighed off against the purely physical risk of COVID-19. Is there a risk to a child’s mental health, social development and long-term educational outcomes by staying at home?

Experts say yes.

“The social isolation is very challenging for the family — for the children, for the parents and everyone’s mental health and well-being — there’s no doubt about it,” says Freedman.

“How to quantify that is very, very difficult. And then how do you balance that with their education, with their socialization, with the risk of being exposed to COVID? There’s no single metric or measure that can do that.

“We’re definitely seeing a large number of children presenting with mental health concerns,” says Freedman, who works out of Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. “We don’t have data yet that I have seen to say it’s higher than it has been in previous years, but our suspicion in some of our anecdotal reports of that is it’s higher than previously. It’s reasonable to say that I think clinicians are seeing an increase in the number of cases.”

The mental health and educational outcomes of kids has to be weighed along with the risk of catching COVID.

As an older mom of twin sons who are now 23 — one of whom has asthma — I have wondered how I might have responded to the return to school had I faced this. My husband and I have discussed it and we would have sent them back into the classroom because missing out on their education would be a bigger risk to their lifelong well-being than catching COVID. Nothing worth doing in life is without risk. It’s a matter of weighing and balancing those risks. The simple arithmetic indicates that most Canadian kids should return to school come September.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary. [email protected]

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