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Finland's school reopening: "I believe we're doing the right thing"

With some schools in Finland reopening next week, parents and teachers worry about the spread of coronavirus.

koululaiset matkalla kouluun.
Some children in Finland return to school on 14 May for the final weeks of the spring term. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

While children do not seem more immune to coronavirus than adults, their symptoms appear to be milder, according to a leading Finnish virologist.

"When the pandemic first began, scientists thought kids don't spread the virus. However cases that have emerged around the world since then have shown that this wasn't exactly the case," Helsinki University virology professor Kalle Saksela pointed out.

Helsingin yliopiston virologian professori Kalle Saksela.
New information on the virus is constantly emerging, according to Helsinki University virology professor Kalle Saksela. Image: Jani Saikko / Yle

Saksela told Yle he didn't foresee school reopenings launching a second wave of infections. He did, however, draw attention to the fact that Denmark's R0 (the number of new infections estimated to stem from a single case) began rising a few weeks after children returned to school.

"The biological behaviour of this virus is still unknown, which is why we are constantly learning new things about it," he explained.

Kids may not be super spreaders

In statistical terms, children have not been major spreaders of the virus, although Saksela said they're capable of reproducing the virus in the same manner as adults.

"Children’s cell cultures show a virus just as infectious as that in cultures from adults. For now we can only speculate as to why children then seem to be less efficient at spreading the disease," he explained.

Story continues after audio.

Audio: Yle News

According to Saksela, the reason may be linked to kids’ immunological response to the virus or to anatomical differences in how the virus interacts with children's and adults' respiratory systems.

"But for now, there’s no conclusive scientific research on this," he added.

Saksela speculated that 'super spreaders' may not exist among children.

"It’s clear that infectiousness is uneven," he said.

A theory of 'super spreaders'--individuals who transmit infections to far more people than the majority do--has emerged regarding adult transmission of coronavirus.

Saksela hypothesised that super spreaders may produce larger droplets from coughing or sneezing, causing the pathogen to travel further.

"For some reason it seems that children, who tend to very efficiently spread respiratory infections, don’t seem to do so in this case," he said.

Scientists have yet to agree on the role children play in the spread of the virus. Some researchers have suggested that children have a lower risk of falling ill, while others have said school closures slashed kids' exposure risk. Adding to the confusion is the fact that fewer coronavirus tests are performed on kids since they often have mild or no symptoms.

Schools to practice distancing and hygiene

Primary schools will reopen in Finland on Thursday, 14 May, after being closed for two months to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

"We know now that coronavirus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and also to some extent through surface contact, such as dirty door handles."

While the virus has survived for long periods of time in laboratory settings, surfaces have not turned out to be significant spreaders of the virus.

"The idea with kids returning to schools is that they can romp about, but an effort will be made to keep classes apart. In light of what we’ve learned globally up until this point, I believe we're doing the right thing."

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