Back at school: On student safety

State governments have taken the difficult decision to reopen schools for some classes, encouraged by a consensus among public health experts that the benefits to students and society at large outweigh the risks of a COVID-19 surge. A week after many of them reopened, mainly at the secondary and higher secondary level, infections among teachers and students have not triggered an alarm, although general social attitudes towards the pandemic have turned negligent. Data from Tamil Nadu show that post-reopening, about 30 students and teachers have tested positive, to which the State has responded by tracing contacts and testing, while keeping the institutions open. Kerala, which has struggled to contain the infection rate and continues to report about 25,000 cases a day, is venturing only to reopen residential higher education institutions and final-year college classes within a bio-bubble of at least single-dose vaccination; resumption of schooling continues to pose a dilemma. The crippling absence of education for millions in the country has raised the question of whether governments have shown alacrity to limit the harm from prolonged closures. A study by economists in August showed that a mere 8% of students in rural areas had regular access to online learning and 37% were not studying at all. It also found that only a minority of students with smartphones, i.e., 31% in urban areas and 15% in rural settings, received regular instruction. This crisis has remained neglected for over a year, and the findings underscore the need for in-person teaching to resume.

Among the major concerns surrounding reopening of schools is possible transmission of the virus on campuses, with implications for vulnerable individuals in the students’ home. Here, the advocacy of the European Technical Advisory Group on schooling during COVID-19 — smaller class sizes, wider spaces between desks and staggered breaks at school — is worth considering. The panel underscores the importance of evolving a follow-up protocol, when a cluster of cases leads to school-wide testing. Many public health experts argue that younger children, typically in the 6 to 14 age group, have the lowest risk of moderate or severe COVID-19 infection, while this is also the cohort that needs good foundational teaching. Most of these students are not eligible for vaccination. WHO recommends that for these pupils, the approach towards reopening should be caveated: risk based, and taking note of community transmission, ability to maintain physical distancing and good ventilation. Vaccination of teachers and school staff and eligible students, and free testing for all are other major factors. Hesitancy or refusal should be firmly countered. Governments should end their populist indulgence of unsafe behaviour in public spaces to prevent community-level spikes that can jeopardise the nascent return of schooling.


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