The Investigators: As some schools offer in-person lessons, Mid-South doctors discuss short-term, long-term effects of COVID-19 on children

The Investigators: Thousands of children sickened by COVID-19

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - Some Mid-South parents are still trying to decide if they should send their children back to school next month or instead, opt for in-home, virtual learning.

One issue influencing that decision is how COVID-19 affects children.

“My husband and I keep going back and forth,” said Rocio Rodriguez, parent of a rising fourth-grader. “Realistically, we would like for him to go back to interact with his teachers, to interact with his classmates but we are very concerned about the rising numbers.”

Her son goes to a private school in Shelby County, which has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in Tennessee.

So far, 1,616 school-age children in Shelby County have contracted the disease.

“It’s a challenging decision,” said Dr. Jennifer Snow, Director of Baptist Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. “You have to look at the local infection rate, you have to talk to your school and see what measures the schools are using to mitigate the risk of infection -- social distancing, masking, sanitizing. Fortunately, the data shows kids are less severely affected by COVID-19 than adults.”

It’s unclear why children’s symptoms are less severe.

Dr. Bindiya Bagga with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital also points out a small number of children have died from COVID-19.

“They are not getting super sick with it,” said Dr. Bagga. “There really hasn’t been that much mortality.”

We checked with state health departments in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

In Tennessee, 15,351 youth between infancy and 20 years old have contracted the disease. Four have died.

The most recent data available in Mississippi shows 5,276 COVID-19 cases have been those 17 or younger. Just over 50 have been hospitalized.

In Arkansas, 5,076 youth aged 17 or younger have been diagnosed with the disease. All have survived.

Bagga says the disease presents differently in children than it does adults.

“It’s not affecting children as much as it’s affecting adults, right? Not to say that they are totally protected from it,” she said. “In adults, most of the symptoms are respiratory. They have cough and shortness of breath. In children, they can have that but along with fever and some cough they can present with GI symptoms so they can have diarrhea, vomiting.”

Children may also develop headaches, an altered mental status and a stiff neck.

Another phenomenon is multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).

“I think that’s one thing families and pediatricians and communities have to be really concerned about and really worried about,” said Bagga.

The symptoms include rash, red eyes and lymph node swelling and usually shows up three to four weeks after a child has been exposed to COVID-19.

“Their body’s immune system sort of goes rogue on them and they get super inflamed and get really sick and go into the hospital,” said Bagga. “Their parents may not have even known that their child had COVID because the COVID itself could have been pretty mild.”

According to Bagga, Le Bonheur has seen about ten cases of the disease so far.

“Even with that, the recovery has been really good,” she said.

Still, Rodriguez questions what the long-term consequences for her child might be should he contract the disease.

“Does my child have the potential of suffering from long-term neurological problems or something that could be a life-long struggle?” she wonders.

Snow says it’s unlikely but unknown.

“You can extrapolate that if kids are less severely affected having severe disease, there’s reason to believe there shouldn’t be any long-term consequences but it’s too early to tell because it is a new virus,” she said.

Medical experts say children with certain underlying conditions, like an organ transplant or cancer, should likely not return to school.

However, there isn’t much information on how COVID-19 affects children with conditions like diabetes and asthma. In those cases, doctors say it’s up to each family to decide what is best for their school-aged children.

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