How Risky Is It to Send My Kids to School in a Pandemic?

An update on COVID-19 exposure and transmission risks

Chana Davis, PhD
10 min readOct 21, 2020


Back to school in the new normal.

When elementary schools opened this fall, my family opted in. We felt that the small risk of COVID-19 was worth the huge benefits.

Yet, as we kissed our three monkeys goodbye, and returned home to a quiet house, our jubilation was tinged with trepidation.

We knew that our best efforts to estimate the back-to-school risks were crude at best. A month later, we have a much clearer picture of the risks we are all assuming — kids, families, and communities.

As a parent, my big concern is that my kids will get infected, and possibly spread it to others. This story shares what we have learned about exposure risk, transmission risk, and community spread, all of which can help you understand your own risk.

How likely is it that my child will be exposed to COVID-19 at school?

The first piece of the risk puzzle is your COVID-19 exposure risk: the risk that your child is exposed to somebody who is carrying COVID-19 and may spread to others.

What is an exposure? An “exposure” is when someone shows up at school with COVID-19 during their infectious period (presumably unaware). Importantly, an “exposure” does not tell you whether or not COVID-19 was acquired at school, or brought in from the outside; it also doesn’t tell you whether or not this person spread it to anybody else.

News tip: When reading COVID-19 news, pay close attention to whether or not the exposures resulted in any spread. For example, when Berlin re-opened schools in August, story after story talked about 41 “exposures” (out of 825 schools). Yet, none of these exposures led to outbreaks. An exposure without any transmission is, in many ways, good news! See example here from Global BC.

As expected, the risk of COVID-19 at a given school is tightly linked to rates of COVID-19 in the surrounding community. The higher the COVID-19 rates in the community, the more exposures — people bringing COVID-19 to school — we see.

In my area, the Vancouver School Board, we saw about 23 exposures in the first month of school (23…



Chana Davis, PhD

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science