How Safe is it to Go Back to School?

As schools start to reopen across the country, parents have some new concerns to contend with, alongside the usual anxieties about new teachers, classmates, and choosing the right backpack. Could their child catch COVID-19 at school and fall ill? Might they bring the infection home and pass it to vulnerable family members? Will further outbreaks lead to school shutdowns and more missed learning opportunities?

The most recent research indicates that while children can contract COVID-19, their symptoms are, fortunately, usually mild. However, even mildly affected children can spread SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that infected children shed (release from their body) at least as much SARS-CoV-2 virus as adults. Children also shed SARS-CoV-2 for a prolonged period, according to research published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and can simultaneously have the virus and antibodies against it (often seen as an indicator of immunity) in their system. Furthermore, an in-depth contact tracing study in South Korea concluded that school-aged children were slightly more likely to transmit the virus to family members in the home than adults.

Since fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, many workplaces and other communal spaces have attempted to minimize the spread of infection by measuring the temperatures of everyone entering their premises. Could this approach help keep COVID-19 out of our schools? Unfortunately, this kind of screening could miss many infected students since not all children with COVID-19 experience fever and infected individuals can spread the virus for days before they feel ill.

The best way to detect COVID-19 is through viral testing, as it does not rely on the identification of symptoms. However, schools currently face two significant obstacles to implementing such a strategy: speed and detection.

For rapid answers, so-called ‘instant’ COVID-19 tests offer on-the-spot results, typically detecting the virus within an hour. These tests, though, often require the installation of sophisticated machines with trained staff on-site to operate them and have lower sensitivity than laboratory tests, leading to more missed positive cases.

Laboratory COVID-19 diagnostic tests typically use a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect viral genetic material in nose, throat, and saliva samples. PCR tests ordered by a healthcare provider are incredibly sensitive, but, although the tests only take a few hours to run, many state-run and major lab testing facilities are overcapacity and frequently take several days to provide results. The Department of Health and Human Services found that around half of the COVID-19 tests run in the U.S. took over three days to return results, and wait times as long as 24 days have been reported.

Many biotech companies have created innovative solutions to address the urgent need for rapid and accurate testing by developing novel viral detection methodologies, some of which may become available later in the school year, pending regulatory approval. With the start of semester fast approaching in many states, that need is now more pressing than ever.

Sema4 is proud to have leveraged our extensive experience with high-sensitivity molecular testing and secure sample handling protocols to streamline the gold-standard PCR test process and deliver COVID-19 results within 24-48 hours. Our customizable digital end-to-end testing solution, which includes web portals and the Sema4 Works symptom monitoring app, can help schools take steps to safeguard the health of students and teachers as they reopen their doors. With the lab capacity to run 15,000 tests a day, we hope our contribution will help America return safely to working and learning and bring back some normality into our children’s lives.

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