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What schools need to do during pandemic

Rajib Dasgupta, N K Arora write: School life during and after the Covid-19 pandemic is not going to be the same.

Students resume offline classes amid the Covid pandemic (File photo)

As Covid-19 continues to show signs of ebbing in India, it’s “back to school” now after nearly 600 days. There is continuing evidence from across the world that schools can be opened safely, and these institutions are not super-spreader spaces once they have mitigation measures in place. Two points of worry are emerging though. Several education institutions across states have experienced institutional outbreaks of Covid-19 and the new sub-variant, Omicron, has triggered concerns worldwide. The national genomic surveillance programme is tracking the variant and trying to ascertain if it is emerging as a major epidemiological concern in the Indian context.

That said, there are several reasons for optimism. The nationwide survey conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in June-July 2021 showed that adult and child populations have been almost equally exposed to the virus. While seropositivity among adults is due to natural infections (since the beginning of the pandemic) as well as vaccination, the serostatus of children demonstrates natural infection. The natural infection rates in adults and children are very similar, and staying at home has not prevented children from getting exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

Indian data, both from the first and second waves, confirm that although infection rates are similar, symptomatic disease in children is much less — and, the incidence of severe disease requiring hospitalisation and possibilities of death are rare. The infected children, therefore, may not show symptoms but become part of the chain of the spread of the virus in the community.

India is making good progress in vaccinating those above the age of 18 years. This has dramatically changed the pandemic immunological security environment of the country – the transmission of the virus has slowed down and is expected to slow down further. The level of exposure to the virus among teachers is high as well — upwards of 90 per cent.

Vaccination of children is not an immediate prerequisite. However, all adults in their homes and schools, including teachers and staff members, should receive vaccination on priority, if not already immunised. The aim is to have children in a vaccine-protected adult environment.

In recent months, several countries have started immunising their child population with Covid-19 vaccines. In such a scenario, even as the risk of severe disease goes down, parents need to be assured that opening schools pose relatively little risk to the safety of their children, and the benefits of “back to school” outweigh those of keeping the children at home.

The youngest — primary school children — have the least risk of severe disease. India is soon going to have four to five homegrown vaccines evaluated for safety and effectiveness in paediatric populations. While vaccination for children is likely to be prioritised in the coming months, parents should not wait for paediatric vaccination and permit their wards to attend schools as it is critical for their overall development.

Outbreaks in schools and other settings where young people congregate tend to be determined by “Three Cs”: Closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded spaces with many people, and close contact (conversations or physical exercises in close proximity). Detailed advisories are available for school and classroom levels as well as those for high-risk individuals. School-level responsibilities pertain to the following realms: Administrative (attendance and entry rules), cohorting (keeping students and teachers in small groups that do not mix), having safety bubbles or capsules, staggering the breaks in schools, and making provisions for alternate physical presence (attending school on alternate days, alternate school shifts). Safety in educational settings may require significant strengthening of school-level infrastructure and resources including ventilation, water supply and toilets. An adequate number of handwashing facilities is a must and schools should also have separate entry and exit points.

In all this, one critical facet of educational institutions shouldn’t be forgotten: They are essential to the socialisation of children.

Students shouldn’t be kept away from the playgrounds — though every precaution should be exercised. Other essential prerequisites pertain to the reorganisation of school transportation — making them amenable to Covid safety protocols — the continuation of school-based services that provide psychosocial support to children, including nutrition and immunisation programmes. The classroom-level actions relate largely to physical distancing (at least one metre in districts or sub-districts with community or cluster transmission). Children aged 12 years and above should keep at least one metre apart from each other; teachers and support staff should adopt the same protocol. Other essentials pertain to wearing of masks (children above the age of two should follow the national mask guidelines for adults), frequent hand hygiene/respiratory etiquette and spacing of desks or grouping of children if required.

The WHO emphasises that decisions on full or partial closure or reopening should be taken at the local administrative level, guided by data at these levels (districts or sub-districts) on the transmission of the virus and the extent to which reopening of these institutions may affect transmission in the community. Districts with no cases or sporadic cases are advised to keep all schools open and implement Covid-19 prevention and control measures. Districts with cluster transmission can keep most schools open and consider closing schools in areas experiencing an expansion in clusters. Areas with community transmission will most likely require school closure, particularly when there are increasing trends of Covid-19 cases that require hospitalisation.

The Covid-related “stay-at-home when sick” policy should be promoted and effectively practised. Frequent consultations between the school administration, community leadership, parents’ groups and teachers’ organisations are critical to roll out and sustain these processes. School life during and after the Covid-19 pandemic is not going to be the same.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 8, 2021 under the title ‘Back to classrooms’. Dasgupta is chairperson, Centre of Social Medicine & Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Arora is Executive Director, The INCLEN Trust International, New Delhi. Views are personal

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