After a school year rife with debate over the safety of returning to classrooms, experts say that the United States is edging closer to a safe return to in-person learning in the fall.
First, there is continuing good news on the vaccine front. Last month, about 17 million children ages 12 to 15 became eligible to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. And Moderna plans this month to ask the Food and Drug Administration to clear its vaccine for use in 12- to 17-year-olds.
For more than a year, parents across the United States have scrambled to adapt to online learning and keep their children focused. (And parents who balanced remote learning with work were the lucky ones. Many others lost their jobs, lacked adequate internet access or stopped work to tend to their families.)
Until vaccines are approved for children of all ages, rapid antigen testing might be the best way to limit rare outbreaks of the virus, detect them early and keep schools open consistently.
There are signs that Abbott’s BinaxNOW, a widely available antigen test, is highly sensitive in young children with symptoms of Covid-19, according to a small new study. Among children younger than 7, the test detected 100 percent of coronavirus cases, researchers write in a forthcoming paper in the journal Pediatrics.
The study, led by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, enrolled 199 children and young adults, ranging from 2 months to 20 years old. All participants had at least one symptom of Covid-19 and had been symptomatic for less than a week.
The Abbott test was somewhat less sensitive in older children, however, and generated a substantial number of false positives in children of all ages. Among children who did not have the virus, 8 to 10 percent tested positive on the antigen test, the researchers found.
“One hundred percent sensitivity in children less than seven years is excellent — outstanding,” said Dr. Alejandro Hoberman, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the senior author of the study. “The problem was the false positives.”
The findings suggest that while the test could help schools and day cares operate more safely, it might be more useful for ruling infections out than at definitively detecting them.
Experts say that more research is needed. “It is important data to have, but we need reinforcing studies that replicate what this study has done with larger numbers of children,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
Dr. Redlener expects that all children will be eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 toward the end of the year or early in 2022.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said in an interview with CNN on Thursday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that children younger than 12 would be eligible for vaccinations by Thanksgiving.
Until then, experts are confident that masks, distancing, hand washing, cleaning and ventilation — along with rapid tests — can enable a return to full-time in-person classroom settings.
Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, said that children had become comfortable with tests to the point of administering swabs themselves. “The perception of testing — that it was expensive, it took a long time, it was tickling your brain — none of that is true anymore,” she said. “We’ve made such progress on the technology.”
Having this kind of testing available everywhere, Dr. Redlener said, “should help reassure schools and parents that it’s safe to return to the classroom.”