Keep students in school, they are safer there than home during COVID19 pandemic
Photo credit: UNICEF

Keep students in school, they are safer there than home during COVID19 pandemic

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As the COVID19 pandemic stretches on indefinitely, parents and students now face mounting dilemmas about attending school due to financial strains resulting from the hard-hit economy.

This is despite Education CS George Magoha recently directing that school heads ensure students pay up their third term fee arrears as he indicated that some parents were taking advantage of the previous relief on payment deadlines.

Evidence from previous pandemic waves suggest that school children may play only a relatively small role in transmission of coronaviruses. Persons under 20 years (adolescents) appear to be around half as susceptible as adults to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus and much less likely to be symptomatic.

Yet data on viral load suggest that children may have COVID-19 viral load similar to that of adults. Data on transmission in schools are scarce. Given this uncertainty, the impact of reopening schools on transmission is unclear.

There is, however, no evidence that children are more likely to transmit than adults. When children get COVID-19, there is clear evidence that they are very unlikely to have severe illness or die.

Together, these data suggest that children, particularly primary and secondary school children, are likely to be among the safer groups to begin relaxation of social distancing which is already difficult to achieve in public primary and secondary schools 

In contrast, the harms related to prolonged school closure or sending pupils and students home for fee arrears are already with us owing to the experience of long school closures during the previous waves of Covid-19.

In addition to impacts on learning, we’ve seen a range of impacts on mental health and well-being due to social isolation, reduced social support, increased exposure to violence at home, exclusion of children from school-delivered public health interventions (e.g., vaccination and deworming programmes) and exclusion of the most vulnerable students from social safety nets operating through schools.

Indirect harm to broader society includes increased child marriages, high teenage pregnancy prevalence and increased cases of female genital mutilation and failure to return to school postcrisis.

Issues of gender inequality related to cessation of education have particular urgency for adolescents. Family poverty and hunger may require children and young people to gather food or seek work, and those who drop out are unlikely to return to school. Financial hardship and parent mortality may also result in girls leaving education to take on more domestic responsibilities. The Malala Foundation estimate that approximately 10 million more secondary-aged school girls could be out of school after the current crisis has passed.

The harms are greater in more deprived families and low-income communities, thus worsening health and educational inequalities. Balancing the potential benefits with harms involves explicit trade-offs for county governments; decisions that are not without significant risk.

As policymakers debate safety learning amidst a pandemic, efforts must be made to mitigate the effects of closure on children and young people, their families and broader society.

High-income countries are providing education and mental health support via online routes and alternative provision for school meals, although these are less possible in Kenya.

Mitigation policies here at home need to focus on those at most risk of not returning to education, particularly girls and young women.

The major challenge is how safe will schools be for the learners in the meantime. Social distancing measures can be implemented in schools, and evidence from influenza outbreaks supports their utility. 

Social distancing between learner’s can be reduced within and across classes, years and schools. In Taiwan, pupils are separated from each other by newly built plastic partitions between desks in classrooms and canteens. Splitting years or classes so that only part of the school attends at any one time may allow physical distancing even in normally crowded schools.

Ensuring school hygiene and handwashing measures and the monitoring of infections among students and teachers (e.g., test, trace and isolate programmes) will be important in terms of assessing the safety of reopening of schools, and also to gain and retain the trust of teachers and the public. Algorithms for local class or school closures may be useful where local outbreaks occur.

The restoration of education in a safe but timely way is essential to prevent what might be catastrophic consequences for humanity. Decisions need to be made based on available evidence and recognising that both reopening schools and keeping them closed carry risks.

Phased reopening of schools, introducing social distancing and testing and tracing regimes in schools appear essential, although these may be difficult in many parts of the country. More research into the wider harms and benefits of school closures and reopening strategies during COVID-19 is critical to inform this and future pandemics.

Mr Orwa is a youth advocate at the Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa (NAYA) Kenya