On May 10, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a set of considerations that countries may refer to when deciding whether to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to UNESCO, over 1.57 billion students have been affected by school closures in more than 190 countries during the pandemic.
Some countries in Europe have started lifting restrictions on their residents. On Tuesday, over a million children are scheduled to go to school in France, and in Germany, schools have been partially reopened for younger children. In Spain, schools are shut till September with the exception of classes for some students. In the UK, only two per cent of children are attending school at the moment and the government has urged schools and authorities to encourage more children to come to school.
What do we know about children and coronavirus?
Till now, the number of children infected with coronavirus to the proportion of adults around the world is small, as the disease is more prevalent in those aged more than 15 years.
During SARS in 2002-2003, the global number of children infected (between age groups of 4 months to 17 years) was less than 0.02 per cent of the total cases and no deaths were reported. Those severely affected accounted for over 7.9 per cent of the total cases of children. During the MERS outbreak, on the other hand, out of the over 1,600 cases, children less than 19 years of age accounted for less than 2.2 per cent of all cases.
Further, a study by researchers from the Southwest Medical University and Birth Defects Clinical Research Centre of Sichuan province, published in March, noted that the incubation in infected children was longer than in adults, which is approximately 6.5 days as compared to roughly 5.4 days in adults.
Earlier this month, reports suggested that doctors in the UK, Italy and Spain had noticed children who were falling ill with symptoms of high fever and swollen arteries, which they believed to be coronavirus-related.
In conclusion, while children may form a small proportion of the cases and most of them suffer mild symptoms, there have been rare cases of severe illness among children.
The WHO notes that the role of children in transmission remains unclear and to date, few educational institutions have been involved in outbreaks, “but from these studies, it appears that disease transmission was primarily related to social events linked to school or university life rather than transmission within classrooms,” WHO has said.
What the WHO has said
The WHO has advised that the decision to close, partially close or reopen schools should be guided by “risk-based” approaches that maximise the educational and health-benefits for students, teachers and the staff. Therefore, decision-makers should consider the following when contemplating opening schools:
1. The current understanding of COVID-19 transmission and children
2. Local situation of the areas where schools are located
3. School setting and the ability to maintain COVID-19 prevention and control measures
“Additional factors to consider in deciding how or when to partially close or reopen schools include assessing what harm might occur due to school closure (e.g. risk of non-return to school, widening disparity in educational attainment, limited access to meals, domestic violence aggravated by economic uncertainties etc.), and the need to maintain schools at least partially open for children whose caregivers are ‘key workers’ for the country,” the WHO has said.
Further, if schools are reopened, social distancing measures should be followed, for which schools will have to consider immunisation checks at the entry, availability of big enough classrooms so that students can be spread out, maintaining a distance of at least one meter between all those present in the premises and limiting the mixing of classes for school and after-school activities, among a slew of other measures.
Why can’t students be taught online?
Many schools across the world shifted to online teaching during the pandemic, including in India, where the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) asked educational institutions to complete the academic year through online classes.
However, not everyone has equal access to digital resources required to take part in online learning, especially in a country like India, where broadband penetration is low. Further, teachers and students need to be made aware and provided some sort of training to familiarise themselves with digital workflows.
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Last month, UNICEF and Microsoft announced the expansion of the global learning platform called “Learning Passport” designed to provide education for displaced and refugee children through a digital remote learning platform. Now the program has been expanded to facilitate a country-level curriculum for children whose schools have been shut due to COVID-19.