Public schools can and should reopen֫ in communities with low COVID infection rates, according to Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The risks to children, especially the youngest children — who are, incidentally, those who are least able to do remote learning — are very, very low,” Hanage told GBH News. “What epidemiologists are concerned about is the potential for schools to amplify infections, which means that a large number of students become infected and then take them home to their families.”

Hanage spoke to GBH News after 16 Massachusetts school districts in low-infection communities were asked by state officials Friday to explain why they decided to start the school year with remote learning only.

When it comes to younger children, Hanage said, with masking, social distancing, and good hygiene, the amplification of infections from schools is largely preventable. Prevention can become more difficult with high school students, who are more likely to have symptoms than younger children and are more likley to engage in risky behaviors.

Hanage said good infection control in schools should give parents confidence, but they should also recognize the broader context of COVID beyond the schools.

“We have to consider the fact that these schools are not an island,” Hanage said. “They are in a community which contains other places where transmission can occur. And that includes workplaces. It includes ill-advised large gatherings of people, like the parties that we might have heard of. It includes households — it includes especially multigenerational households where people who are older and more at risk could become exposed. So, we cannot consider any one part of our community, any one part of anything, in isolation when you're dealing with an infectious disease.”

Hanage added that education is a critical part of society, and experiences elsewhere in the world show that schools can be reopened safely.

“Remember, younger kids, and children in general, are the least likely age group to have any severe infections,” Hanage said. “The concern that we have as epidemiologists is not about them, so much as who they might transmit to. . . . that's one of the reasons why I think that school reopenings should be accompanied with careful study of the community — in order to detect any consequence for community transmission."