With many young children heading back to school, some parents are understandably worried about the risks as their kids interact closely with others.
After all, we’ve been told touching infected surfaces and close-contact interactions can spread the virus ― and we know children aren’t as hot on hand-washing and personal space as adults.
But the reality is, there’s not much to be concerned about as far as outdoor playtime goes, whether in a park or on the school playground, say scientists.
There are a few reasons for this. First, children are less likely to transmit the virus than adults, said professor Sarah Lewis, an expert in epidemiology at the University of Bristol. Previous studies have shown 1% to 5% of diagnosed COVID-19 cases occur in children, who tend to be asymptomatic. In young children (ages 4 to 11), evidence points to a reduced risk of becoming sick with the virus and spreading it.
A Public Health England study of school outbreaks in June found that out of more than 1 million children attending preschool and elementary school, only 70 children were affected. Other global studies reinforce this. One from South Korea suggested kids under 10 spread the virus far less often than adults do. Another from Singapore concluded the risk of COVID-19 transmission among children in schools, especially preschools, is likely to be low.
It’s worth noting that children can still spread the virus to adults ― but again, the risk appears to be low. During the first wave, living with children of any age was not associated with an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection or severe outcomes from COVID-19, a study in the London-based journal The BMJ found, compared with not living with children. However, during the second wave, when schools had reopened, there was a slightly increased risk of infection and hospital admission for adults.
We also know that outdoor transmission “very rarely occurs,” said Lewis. “The only documented occurrences of this are at outdoor events, which included an indoor element,” she explained. More transmissions occur inside, she noted. “In terms of viral transmission, it is very safe for children to play together outside.”
Factors such as the wind, fresh air and sunshine all help to disperse the virus.
“For children, risk from the virus is very low, but harm from stopping them from playing together is potentially high,” said Lewis. “It is essential for both their mental and physical health that children are allowed to play together.”
What about touching a shared apparatus, like swings, slides and roundabouts at the local park? Should you wipe them down beforehand? Well, while a lot of focus has been placed on hand sanitizing, washing and wiping during the pandemic, we now know that infection via fomites ― touching infected surfaces and then touching your mouth or nose ― is probably not as big a risk as first thought.
Studies back this up. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” That said, washing hands is still good practice, and children should be encouraged to do this when they get home. If you’d feel more comfortable, it won’t hurt to wipe apparatus down before and after your child has used it.
There is some evidence emerging that a small number of children are displaying symptoms of long COVID, months after first becoming sick. Data estimates from Britain’s Office for National Statistics suggest that five weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, 15% of secondary school children and 13% of children under 12 continue struggling with symptoms.
Still, Allyson Pollock, clinical professor of public health at the University of Newcastle, said parents “should not be concerned” about their children playing in the park and on playgrounds at school.
“They should encourage their children to go and play outside with their friends. The risk of transmission for anybody, whether they’re an adult or a child, is absolutely negligible outdoors ― and even less for young children,” Pollock said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.