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July 30, 2020

Reopening schools: it’s complicated

Opinion

July 30, 2020

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group.

Reopening primary and secondary schools will lead to a rise in community spread of Covid-19. This is the sobering conclusion of the most comprehensive research done to date on the spread of Covid-19 recently completed in South Korea.

The South Korean researchers followed up on 5706 people who first showed Covid-19 symptoms in their households between January 20 and March 27 when schools were closed. They traced all 59,073 contacts of these ‘index cases’ by age categories to scope out the proportion of infections within all contacts attributable to each age cohort.

Their research indicates that children between 10 and 19 were the largest source of the spread within the household at 18.6 percent of contacts. In contrast, children nine years old or younger had the lowest rate of household spread at 5.3 percent.

The upshot is that, while children may be less likely to contract Covid-19, they are still at risk of getting infected. More importantly, infected children over ten years of age are as likely as adults to spread the virus. Parents should therefore be concerned that in-person school attendance could lead to their children becoming infected and that children in turn transmit the infection to other family members.

Requiring children to attend classes in person would present challenges that most schools would find difficult to comply with. Many schools are operating in structures not built for the purpose. These are buildings with cramped rooms and poor ventilation where the possibility of social distancing can be ruled out, not to mention the high risk posed by droplets carrying the virus circulating in the classroom and inside school premises.

Whether seated in classrooms or out in the open under tents, children can hardly be expected to wear a mask for hours on end in the searing temperatures that prevail for the better part of the year. As for hygiene considerations, schools – even if they do have toilets with running water – will have an impossible task keeping these clean and ensuring that there is adequate soap for hand washing at all times.

Teachers and school staff over 50 years of age would also be at greater risk of contracting the virus and many are understandably nervous about their physical presence in schools as I found in my conversations with several teachers and school heads.

There are moral concerns also as one school principal indicated that he would be mortified at the possibility of facing a parent whose child had contracted the virus traced to his school even though all possible precautions had been taken.

Given the protocols required for schools to operate with even a modicum of safety, many schools will close down rather than bear the extra cost of operating in an environment where revenues will be insufficient to cover the extra costs. The implication is that thousands of children may suddenly find that they have no recourse to any type of formal schooling

Currently private Pakistani schools catering mostly to upper middle and high income households are holding classes through video conferencing software (Zoom or Google Classroom), thereby reaching those students whose families can afford to have a personal computer (PC) or laptop/tablet/smartphone in the house, along with an internet connection.

Even though many teachers are unaware of how to optimize the learning experience through online instruction because they have not been trained to develop and deliver courses online, a small minority of students is nonetheless getting a semblance of instruction.

Unfortunately, this has created a kind of educational apartheid which will harm the life chances of millions of children now deprived of education especially those in the rural areas of this country whose families cannot afford the cost of internet connectivity and/or for whom the price of a PC or laptop/tablet is prohibitive (smartphones are not an ideal learning platform given their small screen size).

Of course, schools have to reopen eventually as online instruction is not a substitute for in-class attendance in schools where students do more than just learn – they also form social connections, internalise norms for appropriate social behaviour and participate in sports and outdoor activities that are hugely beneficial for a child’s physical and mental wellbeing. These benefits cannot be obtained online. (There is also the question of whether children of up to 7 or 8 years of age are even able to learn online.)

The time for reopening schools depends on successfully containing the spread of the virus in the country and in regional hotspots. The World Health Organization (WHO) has laid down a criterion for reopening of the economy which is that the positivity rate for Covid-19 tests (the percentage of daily tests conducted that indicate the presence of an infection) should be five percent or less for 14 consecutive days – for each of 100 people tested, the number testing positive should be five or less for 14 consecutive days.

Currently (July 22), Pakistan’s positivity rate is hovering around eight percent which is a major improvement from the positivity rate of about 20 percent a month back. Nonetheless, it’s still higher than the WHO’s threshold. Also the scale of testing should be expanded to allay the concerns of many including the Pakistan Medical Association that Covid-19 cases are being under-reported. (The two weeks after Eidul Azha will also be crucial to determine whether we are going to experience a second wave of infections).

Even when schools reopen appropriate safety protocols would be required – including smaller class sizes, daily temperature checking of all persons entering school premises, wearing of face masks by staff and students, frequent disinfection of toilets, easy access to hand sanitizers, and prohibition of students congregating for assembly or in cafeterias or in any open space such as a corridor leading to the classroom.

There has been enormous psychological and economic damage inflicted worldwide due to the disruption of schooling for millions of children, particularly those in developing countries. Girls’ education is particularly at risk as they would likely be asked to attend to household chores instead of devoting time to academic pursuits.

Since Covid-19 may be with us for a long time and because there is no guarantee that a vaccine will be developed (even though currently there is a kind of gold rush underway with more than 165 vaccines under development of which 27 are in the human trials phase), the government has to take steps to alleviate the situation.

The measures to be adopted should primarily try and fill the gaps hindering the provision of online instruction to those families least able to afford it. Thus one laptop or tablet should be given to each family that qualifies under the Ehsaas program for government assistance – provided they have at least one child in any government registered school with an attendance rate of over 70 percent over the last calendar year.

Further, broadband connectivity should be made available gratis at all government schools and in private registered schools whose average monthly fees per pupil are below a certain level (say Rs500). Students should be allowed free access to broadband through their schools’ WiFi network or through any nearby private school with the government providing a subsidy to such schools for costs incurred to expand their WiFi coverage.

Indeed, a long-term goal should be to ensure that all students get online instruction from the best teachers, regardless of where they (both students and teachers) are located.

Email: [email protected] com.pk