Friday July 01, 2022

Are we really ready to open schools? - Part I

August 22, 2020

The writer is a freelance education policy, management and reform consultant

Given the difficulty posed by the ongoing Covid-19 situation and the variation of its impact across the globe, several countries are at different stages regarding how and when they plan to reopen schools.

Similarly, in Pakistan, the federal minister for education has announced September 15 as an anticipated date for reopening of the schools. The provincial education departments of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have already firmed up this date. During such a worrying and disruptive time, it’s natural to have a lot of concerns on the safety of students, teachers, and staff and on the likelihood that this will not pose a greater risk for other family members, and the wider community.

Since the pandemic is not yet over, there’s still no guaranteed safe way to bring children back into classrooms. While planning to reopen schools may be underway, in the best interest of every child, it is useful to think on some critical facts which the policymakers may consider before they finally move ahead with bringing children back to school.

An important consideration is the infection and fatality rate among children between 5 and 16 years around the globe. Another vital concern that warrants our attention is the likelihood that the children may spread the virus to teachers. At the same time, one cannot lose sight of the fact that some other countries have already made an experiment to open schools during the Covid-19 crisis. What can we learn from their experiences and the available body of evidence?

At the same time, it is pertinent to take stock of our own capacity and make a fair evaluation of our readiness to resume schools while the Covid crisis is not completely over yet. This article, in three parts, draws evidence from some of the global studies and experiences about the behaviour of novel coronavirus vis-a-vis school-aged children. It also weighs our capacity to implement SOPs for the provision of a safe schooling environment and then suggests some measures to ensure the provision of a safe learning environment for children at schools during the Covid-19 crisis.

Realistically speaking, scientists and health professionals around the world are striving to determine the behaviour of the coronavirus with exact precision, hence the scientific evidence required to make any decision is still evolving. However, the results of some of the studies conducted in different parts of the world could possibly be helpful to inform about its impact on children.

According to these studies, children and adolescents, between the ages of 5 and 16 ostensibly appear to be at a lower risk for contracting Covid-19 compared to adults. This claim is substantiated by the data released by the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that children and adolescents under 18 years account for less than seven percent of Covid-19 cases. Similarly, in Canada, about eight percent of the total infected cases fall below the age of 19 years. Not to forget Italy, which is one of the worst-hit countries from Covid-19 in the world, reported that about three percent infected cases came from the age group of less than 19 years.

In addition to these, a study conducted on a targeted sample in Iceland concluded that children under the age of 10 years were less likely to be Covid positive. Through anecdotal evidence, a similar trend has been observed in Pakistan where the number of infected cases is one of the lowest for the ages between 10 and 19 according to the analysis reported by an international organisation.

Furthermore, data also suggests that the fatality rate of Covid-infected children between the ages of 10 and 19 is one of the lowest compared with all the other age groups. For example, Covid-related death rate in the US for children and adolescents under 18 years old is less than 0.1 percent. It is about 0.2 percent in China, Italy and many other countries in the world.

On a separate account, it is equally important to evaluate how likely are children to spread it to teachers and other staff at school. This is more critical in the context of Pakistan because a considerable number of teachers and school staff are older than 50 years. And some of them may possibly also have underlying health conditions.

Another worth considering example is South Korea which adopted a rigorous contact-tracing program. They traced more than 59,000 contacts of about 5,500 Covid Index patients and about 10,500 household contacts of around 3,400 Covid Index patients. The study concluded that 11.8 percent of household index patients were Covid-19 positive in contrast to 1.9 percent of non-household contacts. The results further suggest that in households with an index patient between 10 and 19 years of age, 18.6 percent of contacts had Covid-19. This concludes that in households, children between the ages of 10-19 have a considerable probability of spreading the virus. The study also identified that in households with an index patient between 0 and 9 years of age, 5.8 percent of contacts had Covid-19 which is also considerable.

There is also evidence that school closure does contain the spread of Covid-19 in children. A contact survey in Wuhan and Shanghai, China, showed that school closure significantly reduced the rate of COVID-19 among contacts of school-aged children.

To take it further, a piece of ancillary evidence about schools’ role in the spread of Covid-19 might also be obtained from the antibody studies conducted in some parts of the world. The Swedish Public Health Agency carried out an antibody survey of 1100 people. They reported that antibody prevalence in children and teenagers was 4.7 percent. which suggests that there may have been a considerable spread of Covid-19 in schools.

In a nutshell, Covid-19 is an adaptive crisis. A quick look at the studies from around the world discussed briefly above shows that none of them yet provide conclusive evidence about opening or not opening the schools. However, one thing that could be claimed with immense confidence is that whichever countries have attempted to reopen schools have developed very detailed SOPs and have ensured their implementation.

Unicef and the WHO have provided guidelines for reopening schools under Covid-19 conditions. Some countries have adopted these according to their own needs and systems’ readiness. For example, Norway and Denmark, reopened their schools in May, starting with younger students under strict SOPs.

All countries have different systems and management capacities to ensure adherence to SOPs in schools. How well our schools are prepared to follow these guidelines and adhere to the SOPs continues to be a matter of serious concern and must be evaluated based on some of the ground realities that our schools operate in.

To be continued