The closure of schools was one among the many mitigation strategies adopted worldwide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the ones most affected by this move are children. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), school closures have affected around 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries. It is said to have created the biggest disruption in the history of education systems.
While a few countries have already reopened their schools amid the ongoing crisis, many countries are now contemplating doing the same. In this article, we will look at some of the countries that have sent their students back to school and how that strategy has worked out. We will also discuss the impact of COVID-19 on children, the significance of schools reopening, and if India is planning to reopen its schools anytime soon.
What is the impact of COVID-19 on children?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children appear less likely to get infected by COVID-19 in comparison to adults, which is also evident in the numbers – adults make up 95% of all COVID-19 cases. And even if they do, the severity of the illness is relatively lower. Although the data on the transmission of Coronavirus amongst children is limited, early evidence indicates the following:
- The probability of contracting COVID-19 is higher in adolescents aged between 10 to 17 years, when compared to children under the age of 10.
- Infected adolescents are less likely to develop severe illness.
- Children with certain underlying and comorbid medical conditions are at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
- There are higher chances of children getting infected by an adult family member.
Though a rarity, there were a few reports of children developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) after being exposed to the novel Coronavirus. However, most of these children had recovered from the infection.
Why is the reopening of schools important?
Schools support the overall development of a child, along with their academic accomplishments, by delivering in-person instructions. However, this learning routine has been interrupted because of school closures.
Many countries are now considering reopening schools, in the backdrop of the very purpose behind these learning institutions:
- Schools enhance the social and emotional health of students – Children learn the basics of socialization in schools while developing their communication, language, social, and interpersonal skills. These skills contribute to their social as well as emotional wellbeing. Because of school closures, students may experience increased anxiety and social isolation, especially during the present COVID-19 crisis.
- Schools narrow the educational outcome disparities – Through in-person instructions, schools narrow the disparities arising out of income and racial groups. School closures may widen this disparity as some households may not be able to participate in online learning because of work schedules, lack of access to computer/internet, etc. This may hamper the educational outcomes in children.
- Schools impart critical in-person learning – There are many benefits of in-person learning in comparison to its virtual counterpart. Some of the benefits are increased communication between students and teachers, critical academic support through services like tutoring and special education, and active participation of teachers in student learning. In-person learning is even more important for people with learning disabilities.
- Schools foster the mental health of students – Children receive physiological and emotional support from teachers, friends, and other staff members in the school environment. Schools also provide an opportunity for students to be physically active through physical training classes and recess. Physical activity contributes to the mental health of students by easing their anxiety and depression.
Which countries have reopened their schools and how have they managed it?
As stated earlier, a few countries have reopened their schools despite the current crisis and the risks involved, and have had varying degrees of success.
In April, Denmark became the first country in Europe to reopen its schools, with a few key guidelines:
- Groups of students (10 to 12) and a teacher were formed and people in this cohort were instructed to work together throughout the day to lower the exposure across the school.
- Classes were held in open spaces such as public parks, whenever possible.
- Student cohorts were restricted from intermingling.
- Whenever possible, students arrived at the school at staggered times/dates and different doors were used for entry.
- Desks and seats were separated by a minimum of 2 meters. The distance was gradually reduced to 1 meter.
- All students were required to wash their hands every 2 hours including before and after eating, after each break, after using the restroom, etc.
- Except for students/teachers who felt unwell and those using public transportation, masks or face coverings were not mandatory.
- A Coronavirus helpline was set up by the Ministry of Education to offer access to schools for learning and any education-related concerns.
The above measures adopted by Denmark has been deemed successful as indicated by the low infection rates post the reopening of schools. Similar measures were embraced by Norway, Germany, and Finland and all of them showed no significant increase in new COVID-19 cases.
After a delay of more than two months from the originally proclaimed date, South Korea reopened the doors of its schools in late May 2020. The measures taken by the country when reopening its schools were as follows:
- Restrictions were made on the number of students being present at one time. In kindergartens, elementary, middle, and special education schools, only one-third of students were permitted at one time. High schools allowed two-third of their students at one time.
- All students and school staff were instructed to wear face masks in school along with other measures such as washing hands, coughing into their arms, etc.
- Plastic desktop dividers were used in classrooms and lunchrooms as physical distancing measures.
- Temperature checks were mandatorily conducted at school entrances.
- Some schools instructed students to come to school on alternate days while some combined the online and in-person approach of conducting classes.
- All staff and students were sent home wearing masks in case any person in the school was tested positive for COVID-19. This was followed by an epidemiological investigation and disinfection.
Despite the above measures, South Korea saw a slight surge in the number of new COVID-19 cases in late August, prompting many schools to postpone their reopening or close once again.
Israel let its students return to school in early May 2020 in smaller groups or ‘capsules’. However, the limit on the class size was removed after two weeks. It also allowed children to do without masks due to a heatwave. The results were discouraging with many new COVID-19 cases reported by early June, with outbreaks linked to schools. Consequently, Israel decided to close 139 educational institutions indefinitely out of 5,200 schools and 2 lakh kindergartens. The Israel government had declared that in June, schools were the second-highest places of infection.
Is India looking at re-opening schools?
India had closed most of its schools by March to curb the COVID-19 transmission. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) has recently confirmed that schools in India will reopen partially from 21st September 2020 for classes 9 to 12. The detailed guidelines for the same have been released, some of which are provided below:
- Only students from class 9 to 12 can visit the school premises to receive guidance from teachers. This will be voluntary and students will need to get written consent from parents/guardian for the same.
- Only schools outside containment zones will be permitted for reopening. All such schools should sanitize the premises using 1% sodium hypochlorite solution. Also, only students and teachers residing outside containment zones are permitted to visit the schools.
- Physical distancing of at least 6 feet should be maintained at all times by teachers and students. The interaction between students and teachers should be staggered.
- Thermal screening provisions and sanitizer dispensers are mandatory at school entrances. So is the use of face masks/covers within the school premises.
The complete set of guidelines can be found here.
Whether it is safe for countries to open their schools in the middle of an ongoing pandemic is debatable. As we discussed above, some countries have successfully reopened their schools without any major damage while for some, it has caused more harm than good. However, some experts have suggested that in areas where community transmission is low, it is safe for schools to reopen. But at places with a high level of community transmission, schools planning to reopen should be diligent about following hand hygiene, wearing masks, limiting the size of the class, and physical distancing.