School Climate & Safety What the Research Says

Teens Are Driving COVID-19 Surges. Can Schools Counteract That?

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 30, 2021 4 min read
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Teenagers and young adults seem to be driving COVID-19 surges in many states, and experts warn schools may be critical in preventing further outbreaks.

Nationwide, young people ages 18-29 make up the most disproportionate amount of new coronavirus cases—22.3 percent—while they account for only 16.4 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School-age children, 5 to 17, make up about the same percentage of the population but account for a little less than 10 percent of new COVID-19 cases. However, in some states, including Kansas, Michigan, and Minnesota, school-age teenagers have been the fastest-growing age group for new cases.

This spring has turned into something of a perfect storm for a potential surge among young people, according to Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and a coronavirus expert with the Infectious Disease Society of America: Some states are relaxing masking rules, and schools are moving to closer physical spacing at the same time new, more-infectious strains of the coronavirus are becoming predominant.

“We may see even more of a surge after spring break, given that people are definitely not wearing masks or socially distancing, and are gathering in large groups, and traveling,” Tan said. “I think people fail to realize that less than 15 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccine and for the most part, no one under 18 years of age is vaccinated. … This is all setting the stage for more surges in COVID-19.”

Teenagers may be worn out by more than a year of pandemic-related social isolation, suggested Nancy Hill, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University and co-author of the new book “The End of Adolescence.”

“The need to connect with peer groups is so great, and it’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s not just the online and social media connection, but that physical connection that’s also appropriate; it relieves stress.”

In a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center in February, more than 40 percent of teenagers said that they have engaged in social media and texting or calling friends to help keep a positive mindset during the pandemic. Fewer than 1 in 4 teenagers reported being able to socialize with friends in person, though. Hill noted that studies have found adolescent girls, at least, can produce more stress-relieving hormones when they can physically interact with friends.

“It’s very difficult to think that you will get [teenagers] to stay totally apart from each other,” Hill said. “Teenagers are risk-takers, anyway; why not build the systems that tell them, if you want to hang out with people … here’s how you do it safely?”

Hill and her colleagues recommend educators and administrators encourage students to socialize outside of school in small cohorts or pods—similar to elementary-grade play groups—and monitor their COVID-19 status. While this will not prevent the virus from being spread if students don’t keep their physical distance, it will help teenagers become aware of their practices in social situations and remember their own contacts better if there is an outbreak.

Beyond health rules, schools can provide more structure for students to meet friends and engage with them online outside of classroom lessons.

“For many kids, the classroom is not where they make friends,” Hill said. “They make friends through extracurriculars and shared interests. Schools need to open up more opportunities for extracurriculars and not make it the lower priority”—particularly in remote and hybrid learning environments, she said.

Rethinking school social activities can also provide more-comfortable socialization in the long term for students who weren’t previously engaged, according to Alexis Reading, a Harvard University education researcher and co-author of “The End of Adolescence.” The small cohorts and video-conferenced student teams which the pandemic has made necessary “provide a benefit for students with social anxiety and those who have trouble with large groups or students who have been relentlessly bullied,” she said.

While some states, including Colorado and Indiana, have begun to provide vaccinations to those 16 and older, vaccines for younger teenagers aren’t expected to even be available until fall. Moreover, it’s not yet clear whether young people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 may still be able to spread the SARS-COV-2 virus. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced a new randomized controlled study in which more than 12,000 college students at more than 20 university campuses would be tracked over five months to study whether they continue to be infectious if exposed to the virus after getting vaccinated.

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