On Sunday, India decided to keep schools closed for another two weeks. In Europe, millions of children are returning to classrooms.
Why are schools reopening in Europe?
Most countries have imposed strict lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. School closures are central to any government’s efforts to restart the economy. It is difficult for adults to go back to work if schools and daycare centres are still closed, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said in a statement on May 4.
This is why countries like Norway, Denmark, Poland and France are reopening schools by bringing back the youngest first. “Younger children need parents to look after them, thus causing a lot of people having to stay home from work to care for their kids, with great economic and social consequences both for the families and for society… and older children and young adults can easier have distant learning via computers and telephones,” Frode Forland, specialist director in infectious diseases at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, told The Indian Express in an email. Norway opened elementary schools on April 27.
Also, the welfare costs to keeping schools open are far greater for students from underprivileged backgrounds. When schools close, their nutrition is compromised.
Will reopening make children vulnerable?
Scientific research on children with Covid-19 is still an emerging area. Published studies so far indicate that incidence among kids is low compared to adults, but older children report more cases. According to a report published by the John Hopkins Centre for Health Security this week, that summarises findings of published literature, in the US, “among 2,572 pediatric COVID-19 cases, 15% occurred in children who were under 1 year old, 11% occurred in children ages 1 to 4 years, 15% occurred in children ages 5 to 9 years, 27% occurred in children ages 10 to 14 years, and 32% occurred in children ages 15 to 17 years”.
Infected children do not fall as severely ill as adults, with most recovering without hospitalisation. However, the precise role of children in the transmission of the virus is unclear.
CALLS FOR CAUTION: A study headed by Germany’s leading virologist, Christian Drosten, has found that infected children have pretty much the same concentration of the virus in their respiratory passages as adults. “Based on these results, we have to caution against an unlimited re-opening of schools and kindergartens in the present situation,” states the study involving 3,712 patients.
In the US, Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease scientist and member of the White House coronavirus task force, has urged a cautious approach to reopening schools.
CALLS FOR REOPENING: Some experts are calling on governments worldwide to allow all children to go back to school. Saul Faust, Professor of Paediatric Immunology & Infectious Diseases at the University of Southampton, writing in the BMJ Journals online this month, called for reopening of schools as “children do not appear to be super-spreaders”.
“Society has to reopen, children need to return to school as there are negatives for many of having to stay at home and we need to be able study transmission dynamics in all ages to help us learn how to manage this virus. Slowly opening schools in a controlled way will be of low risk to children’s health and less risk to teachers than the risk to many other workers when on public transport/in other work environments (and may be less risk to teachers who would be impacted by other professionals and workers returning to work),” said Faust, in an statement updated on Sunday.
According to Christian Wejse, an associate professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital, the consensus in Denmark — the first European country to reopen schools — is that “children are not considered important to the epidemic”.
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“The consensus in Denmark is that children may be susceptible to Covid-19 but generally have a very mild course of the disease, often without any symptoms, and therefore also not likely to be infectious, and children are not considered important to the epidemic. We have had very few hospital admissions in the age group 0-19 years and it is well documented, that although asymptomatic transmission may occur, it occurs quite rare and is not a likely driver of the epidemic,” he told The Indian Express by email.
What does school life look like in Europe?
Schools are required to follow guidelines issued by the health authorities of their respective countries. Measures include a strict hand hygiene routine for students, no entry of parents into school buildings, outdoor classes and a physical distance of at least one metre between two desks.
DENMARK: In Denmark, large morning assemblies are avoided. When grades 1 to 5 were opened from April 15, each pupil had her desk set two metres apart from her nearest neighbour. This was changed last week to one metre to fit in students of grades 6 to 9. Students are expected to wash hands immediately after entering school premises, in between periods, before and after eating, before leaving for home and after every time a student coughs or sneezes into her hands, under Danish Health Authority (DHA) guidelines. The DHA has also created videos offering tips to parents and to children directly.
School playgrounds are demarcated into zones with young students allowed to play only in small groups, preferably with the same set of friends every day. Handshake, high fives, kiss on the cheek or a hug and sharing of toys and food are prohibited. Students of one class are discouraged from mingling with their counterparts in other classes. Children leave classrooms at staggered times. Toilets are cleaned twice daily and all frequently-touched surfaces are disinfected twice daily.
FRANCE: France, which is progressively opening schools starting with kindergartens and elementary schools from May 11 and secondary schools from May 18, has capped the maximum student strength of a classroom at 10 students for preschools and 15 for others. Parents are expected to take their child’s temperature every day before leaving for school.
Masks are prohibited for nursery students, not recommended for elementary school students and compulsory for teachers and staff.
Aside from a strict handwashing routine, a minimum distance of one metre is mandated between desks, contact sports are banned, and classrooms are to be ventilated before students arrive, during each recess, at lunchtime and in the evening during cleaning. Parents are not allowed into school buildings.
Is it compulsory for parents to send their children to school?
No European country has made it compulsory for parents to send their children to school. But the decision to reopen schools was met with some resistance. After France announced its decision, more than 300 mayors in the Paris region signed an open letter to the President criticising the timeline as unrealistic and saying schools would need more time to implement the hygiene guidelines.
In Denmark, Facebook groups were created by parents objecting to the reopening. In Norway, the government-owned broadcaster NRK aired a poll in the third week of April that found 24% of parents did not want to send their children back to pre-school and 13% said they were unsure.
Are there any findings to suggest that school reopening has led to a rise in cases in Europe?
Here, Denmark’s experience is the most useful, since schools here have been open for a month. According to Wejse, the country has seen no increase in the epidemic after the reopening on April 15 and no major outbreaks in schools. “There was an increase in R, the reproductive rate, from 0.6 to 0.9 between April 10 and April 20, but this measure is estimated from hospital admissions, and therefore considerably delayed. So the increase in R could not be based on school reopenings, but rather less physical distance during the Easter holiday. Also, it was fluctuations in R below 1, so it only affected how steep the falling epidemic curve was, it was still a falling curve, and we saw no increase in the number of positive tests or admissions,” he told The Indian Express.
When R, the reproduction number, is less than one, it means one infected person is likely to cause less than one new infection, and so the spread will decline.
Norway too, Frode says, has “not seen an increase in the spread of the virus since the schools re-opened”.
What about schools in India?
Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Sunday extended the classroom shutdown for another two weeks, till the end of the month. There hasn’t been much public debate on reopening of schools in the country, although some have expressed an inclination to get students back in June. Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti has written to the HRD Ministry seeking permission to reopen Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas from June 8. The Kerala and Gujarat governments too are keen on getting students back in June. However, no announcements are expected unless the Home Ministry clears reopening.