COVID-19: How Can We Reopen Schools?

COVID-19: How Can We Reopen Schools?

19.5.2020
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Photo: Sharon Mccutcheon on Unsplash

Before you start reading this post, I would like to emphasise that it reflects the opinion of an epidemiologist—someone who is not involved in the world of schools. The aim is to prompt the reader to reflect on questions that are not easy to answer. It is in no way intended as advice or guidelines.

A certain amount of information is available: we know that children and adolescents are susceptible to COVID-19, although in most cases the course of the disease is much milder in these age groups than in adults. Young people do, however, constitute a link in the transmission chain, although to a lesser extent than adults. Consequently, we cannot yet rule out the idea that schools are places where the disease can be transmitted by teachers, staff and the students themselves.

We cannot yet rule out the idea that schools are places where the disease can be transmitted by teachers, staff and the students themselves

Furthermore, we know that many infected individuals can be asymptomatic, making it impossible to avoid the risk of infection simply by prohibiting children and staff with flu-like symptoms or fever from attending school. Neither can school attendance be regulated on the basis of an immunological test because of the mediocre reliability of such tests at this time and the large percentage of the population likely to be negative.

We also know that the infection is mainly transmitted by airborne droplets and hand contact with contaminated surfaces. The virus can spread through the air as far as two meters from the infected person and infection may occur over even greater distances in unventilated indoor spaces.

This means that to avoid contagion we need to ensure that a physical space of at least two meters between people is always maintained and that indoor spaces are well ventilated. This requirement will make it necessary to modify the capacity of classrooms and meeting rooms. The use of masks is recommended whenever it is impossible to guarantee this minimum physical distance and ensure adequate ventilation. Since the virus spreads via the hands, regular handwashing with soap and water or cleansing with an appropriate disinfectant product is essential. All school furniture and equipment must also be disinfected regularly.

However, we have no actual evidence about the effectiveness of these measures in a real world situations in schools. It would, therefore, seem prudent when deciding on the reopening of schools to take into account the risk of infection in the community and to start the process in areas with the least risk of contagion.

We have no actual evidence about the effectiveness of these measures in a real world situations in schools. It would, therefore, seem prudent when deciding on the reopening of schools to take into account the risk of infection in the community and to start the process in areas with the least risk of contagion

It is clear that the return of students to the classroom will pose hard-to-resolve dilemmas for school services, teachers and parents. Apart from the epidemiological factors mentioned above, I would also like to bring into the debate a few other aspects of the problem that I believe are fundamental.

  1. The aftermath of this pandemic will be characterised by changes in social organisation and dynamics, which will probably persist for some 12 to 18 months or even longer if an effective vaccine is not found.
  2. Education is a key sector in every society, not only because the schoolchildren of today will shape tomorrow’s world, but also because the impact of schools in society extends beyond the student body, so that schools will have to adapt to the changes that occur in society.
  3. School is the right place for children to learn new habits and norms, such as saying hello to friends with a Japanese greeting instead of a hug, social distancing, careful and frequent hand-washing, and the ventilation of indoor spaces.
  4. Children and adolescents are the most flexible population when it comes to learning new habits and they are, therefore, open to incorporating changes into their routines and adapting to new norms.
  5. Schools play a key role in adapting the curriculum to current events. The pandemic present us with an opportunity to learn how to understand problems, to comprehend the global and interconnected nature of causes, and how to cope with uncertain times and face the reality of our own death and that of those we hold dear.
  6. Methodologies and the organisation of instruction will also have to be adapted to the new era . The use of online technologies is one opportunity. Another possible solution is to teach classes outdoors, where the risk of contagion is lower. Moreover, there is scientific evidence that nature has beneficial effects on attention span and brain development.
  7. The changes will extend beyond the school environment. They will also affect the way people reconcile new ways of working with the new ways their children are being educated. Today, balancing family, school and social support mechanisms has become a greater challenging than ever before.

Education is also affected by the health and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. And all the stakeholders must discuss the future challenges in an open and collective dialogue. The efforts made by so many schools and teachers to adapt during the lockdown has shown us that we can find solutions.

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