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Explained: Why New York’s move to restart classes despite Covid-19 surge contrasts with India’s approach

Schools Reopening: Despite a resurgence in Covid-19 cases, European countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland and Italy have kept schools open while putting restrictions on public life.

Written by Abhishek De , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 5, 2020 3:42:32 pm
From October 15, as part of its Unlock 5 guidelines, the Indian government permitted senior students of Classes 9 to 12 to meet their teachers in schools voluntarily and has left opening of schools to the discretion of the state governments. (File photo)

At a time when Covid-19 cases in the United States are escalating sharply and deaths are at their highest levels since April, New York City — which has the country’s largest school system — will reopen elementary and pre-kindergarten schools from the second week of December. District 75 schools, which serve children with special educational needs, are also set to reopen.

The announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio has been met with skepticism by teachers and parents as Covid cases in the US surpassed the four million mark in November — doubling the record set in October. New York itself has seen a daily average of more than 6,400 cases in the week ending November 29 — up over 24 per cent compared with a week ago — according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Interestingly, Blasio said middle- and high-school students won’t be back in school anytime soon — a trend also seen in several European countries where primary schools have remained open even as strict restrictions have been imposed on public life and social activities during the second wave. On the other hand, India has allowed in-person teaching in schools for senior students only — Class IX to Class XII — from October 15.

Read | As second Covid-19 wave hits, should indoor dining be allowed when clasrooms close 

US Schools, COVID-19, US School Students Students line up to have their temperature checked before entering elementary school in the Kensington neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Why is New York City reopening primary schools? What precautions are being taken?

While announcing the reopening of elementary public schools from December 7 — just 11 days after shutting all classrooms — Mayor Bill de Blasio cited a research to say that “young children appear to be less vulnerable to Covid-19”. “It’s a new approach because we have so much proof now of how safe schools can be and this has come from real-life experience in the biggest school system in America,” De Blasio told reporters.

Read | Vaccines are coming. But first, a long, dark winter, in the US

The decision will pave the way for about 190,000 students to return to school — a fraction of the NYC school system’s 1 million student population — with two-thirds of families having opted for full-time virtual learning.

According to the guidelines, schools will reopen for in-person learning five days a week and parents will have to submit a consent form for weekly Covid-19 testing or a letter of medical exemption from a doctor. Earlier, month testing was implemented in schools. Only about a fifth of students will be tested in a given week. Besides, students have been advised to limit interactions and wear a mask. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Blasio said the city would monitor schools’ coronavirus test results and any individual classrooms or entire schools where multiple cases are reported would be ordered to close down. Besides NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles also have plans to bring back young children first when schools reopen.

A school crossing guard in Brooklyn, the week before Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s schools would be shuttered, Nov. 13, 2020. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)

How have schools reopened in European countries?

Despite witnessing resurgence in Covid-19 cases, European countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy have kept schools and child care centers open while shutting down bars and putting restrictions on public life, restaurants, theaters, concert halls, gyms and tattoo parlours.

Read today’s Express Opinion on Covid-19 | Reimagining the herd

The decision by the countries has been based on emerging evidence that schools have not been major centers of transmission of Covid-19, especially for young children. They also believe that the cost of closing classrooms for children outweighs health risks.

However, the nations have adopted novel strategies while welcoming back students and have implemented something called a “pod model” to maintain distancing besides drastically reducing the size of the class.

For example, in Germany, children, between the ages of two and 12, have been divided into small groups or ‘pods’. Each pod of kids goes to recess at 10 minute intervals and are allocated separate zones to work and play in. Moreover, German schools have been instructed to open windows fully at least once during a period and again during breaks to ensure ventilation.

An Expert Explains | Is lockdown the answer to a second Covid-19 wave?

schools open amid covid-19, coronavirus outbreak, coronavirus latest news, covid vaccine, social distancing in schools, world news, indian express Students from the Wichuthit school attend a computer class after the Thai government eased isolation measures and introduced social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (REUTERS)

Recently, France has made wearing of masks mandatory for even elementary school children, starting at age six.

Also read | The rich in New York confront and unfamiliar word: no

Previously, only children aged 11 and older were required to be masked. Primary schools have been allowed to split classes into groups of 8 to 15 students. They are then rotated between half-days in class and learning from home.

Schools in Britain too are splitting classes into “bubbles”, with each group keeping a safe distance from the other groups to minimise transmission. Italy schools have staggered entry times and new, single desks have been introduced.

Interestingly, Poland has not made face masks compulsory in class and families who decline to send their children to school may face a fine of up to 10,000 zlotys ($2,710), Reuters reported. Spain too has implemented the “bubble” method and temperature checks are carried out each morning. Students are made to wash their hands at least five times a day.

What is the situation in India?

From October 15, as part of its Unlock 5 guidelines, the Home Ministry permitted senior students of Classes 9 to 12 to meet their teachers in schools voluntarily and has left opening of schools to the discretion of the state governments. The Education and Home Ministries have categorically said students will not be forced to attend classes in school and attending classes online has been encouraged.

Wearing of masks has been made compulsory for students, teachers and staff. All students will have to follow a strict hand hygiene routine, and will sit six feet apart in classrooms, the ministry guidelines state. Sharing of notebooks, food and toys amongst students will be prohibited.

India has allowed in-person teaching in schools for senior students only — Class IX to Class XII — from October 15. (File)

However, at least three states — Uttarakhand, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh — reported Covid cases among teachers and students after schools reopened, prompting the governments to defer or postpone reopening. A handful of states like Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir have decided not to reopen schools this year altogether.

What have experts and studies said on reopening of schools?

Several studies have suggested that children under 10 transmit the virus less efficiently than older children or adults, NYT reported. In a study released in August, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control found that children accounted for less than 5 per cent of all Covid-19 cases reported in the 27 countries of the European Union and Britain. The agency also noted that school closures would be “unlikely to provide significant additional protection of children’s health”.

Don’t forget to read our Explained | Are children strong spreaders of Covid-19?

This has been corroborated by data emerging from random testing in the US and Britain, which has found that schools do not seem to be stoking community transmission. Moreover, scientific evidence has suggested limited transmission from young children to adults.

Director Juergen Scheuermann welcomes students as schools re-open at the Karl-Rehbein high school in Hanau, Germany (Reuters)

Citing a study published in the journal “Pediatrics”, NYT reported that a survey of 57,000 child care providers across the US found that those who continued working during the first three months of the pandemic were not any more likely to get sick than those whose programmes closed.

Click to why doctors in US are calling the quits during pandemic

However, a study published recently in Nature noted that “school closures in the United States have been found to reduce COVID-19 incidence and mortality by about 60 per cent”.

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