By:Luyimbaazi Issah Katungulu
Digital & Communications Officer
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected educational systems worldwide, leading to the near-total closures of schools, universities and colleges. Most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. As of 7 June 2020, approximately 1.725 billion learners are currently affected due to school closures in response to the pandemic.
According to UNICEF monitoring, 134 countries are currently implementing nationwide closures and 38 are implementing local closures, impacting about 98.5 percent of the world’s student population. 39 countries’ schools are currently open. On 23 March 2020, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) released a statement announcing the cancellation of Cambridge IGCSE, Cambridge O Level, Cambridge International AS & A Level, Cambridge AICE Diploma, and Cambridge Pre-U examinations for the May/June 2020 series across all countries. International Baccalaureate exams have also been canceled. In addition, Advanced Placement Exams, SAT administrations, and ACT administrations have been moved online and canceled.
School closures impact not only students, teachers, and families, but have far-reaching economic and societal consequences. School closures in response to the pandemic have shed light on various social and economic issues, including student debt, digital learning, food insecurity, and homelessness, as well as access to childcare, health care, housing, internet, and disability services. The impact was more severe for disadvantaged children and their families, causing interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, childcare problems, and consequent economic cost to families who could not work.
In response to school closures, UNESCO recommended the use of distance learning programs and open educational applications and platforms that schools and teachers can use to reach learners remotely and limit the disruption of education. Children and youth out of school due to COVID-19 closures and young people classified as NEET.
Efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 through non-pharmaceutical interventions and preventive measures such as social-distancing and self-isolation have prompted the widespread closure of primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling in over 100 countries.
Previous outbreaks of infectious diseases have prompted widespread school closings around the world, with varying levels of effectiveness. Mathematical modeling has shown that transmission of an outbreak may be delayed by closing schools.
However, effectiveness depends on the contacts children maintain outside of school. School closures may be effective when enacted promptly. If school closures occur late relative to an outbreak, they are less effective and may not have any impact at all.
Additionally, in some cases, the reopening of schools after a period of closure has resulted in increased infection rates. As closures tend to occur concurrently with other interventions such as public gathering bans, it can be difficult to measure the specific impact of school closures.
Big question parents have right now is how students can go back to school safely during COVID-19?
During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in the United States, school closures and public gathering bans were associated with lower total mortality rates.
Cities that implemented such interventions earlier had greater delays in reaching peak mortality rates. Schools closed for a median duration of 4 weeks according to a study of 43 US cities’ responses to the Spanish Flu. School closures were shown to reduce morbidity from the Asian flu by 90% during the 1957–58 outbreak, and up to 50% in controlling influenza in the US, 2004–2008.
Multiple countries successfully slowed the spread of infection through school closures during the 2009 H1N1 Flu pandemic. School closures in the city of Oita, Japan, were found to have successfully decreased the number of infected students at the peak of infection; however, closing schools was not found to have significantly decreased the total number of infected students. Mandatory school closures and other social distancing measures were associated with a 29% to 37% reduction in influenza transmission rates.
Early school closures in the United States delayed the peak of the 2009 H1N1 Flu pandemic. Despite the overall success of closing schools, a study of school closures in Michigan found that “district-level reactive school closures were ineffective.”
During the swine flu outbreak in 2009 in the UK, in an article titled Closure of Schools During an Influenza Pandemic published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a group of epidemiologists endorsed the closure of schools in order to interrupt the course of the infection, slow the further spread and buy time to research and produce a vaccine. Having studied previous influenza pandemics including the 1918 flu pandemic, the influenza pandemic of 1957 and the 1968 flu pandemic, they reported on the economic and workforce effect school closure would have, particularly with a large percentage of doctors and nurses being women, of whom half had children under the age of 16.
They also looked at the dynamics of the spread of influenza in France during French school holidays and noted that cases of flu dropped when schools closed and re-emerged when they re-opened. They noted that when teachers in Israel went on strike during the flu season of 1999–2000, visits to doctors and the number of respiratory infections dropped by more than a fifth and more than two fifths respectively.
For schools and childcare facilities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends short-term closure to clean or disinfect if an infected person has been in a school building regardless of community spread.
When there is minimal to moderate community transmission, social distancing strategies can be implemented such as postponing or canceling field trips, assemblies, and other large gatherings such as physical education or choir classes or meals in a cafeteria, increasing the space between desks, staggering arrival and dismissal times, limiting nonessential visitors, and using a separate health office location for children with flu-like symptoms.
When there is substantial transmission in the local community, in addition to social distancing strategies, extended school dismissals may be considered.
The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and the virus has now spread to many countries and territories. While a lot is still unknown about the virus that causes COVID-19, we do know that it is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (generated through coughing and sneezing)
Individuals can also be infected from touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and touching their face (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth). While COVID-19 continues to spread it is important that communities take action to prevent further transmission, reduce the impacts of the outbreak and support control measures.
The protection of children and educational facilities is particularly important. Precautions are necessary to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 in school settings; however, care must also be taken to avoid stigmatizing students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus.
Kids in school eagerly learning
It is important to remember that COVID-19 does not differentiate between borders, ethnicities, disability status, age or gender. Education settings should continue to be welcoming, respectful, inclusive, and supportive environments to all.
Measures taken by schools can prevent the entry and spread of COVID-19 by students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus while minimizing disruption and protecting students and staff from discrimination. Today, children and young people are global citizens, powerful agents of change and the next generation of caregivers, scientists, and doctors.
Any crisis presents the opportunity to help them learn, cultivate compassion and increase resilience while building a safer and more caring community.
Education can encourage students to become advocates for disease prevention and control at home, in school, and in their community by talking to others about how to prevent the spread of viruses. Maintaining safe school operations or reopening schools after a closure requires many considerations but, if done well, can promote public health.
Big question parents have right now is how students can go back to school safely during COVID-19. The latest American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advice says children learn best when they are in school. However, returning to school needs careful steps in place to keep students and staff safe.
The AAP guidance is based on what pediatricians and infectious disease specialists know about COVID-19 and kids. The evidence so far suggests that children and adolescents are less likely to have symptoms or severe disease from infection. They also appear less likely to become infected or spread the virus.
Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, children learn social and emotional skills, get exercise and access to mental health support and other things that cannot be provided with online learning. For many families, school is where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services. To stay safe, there are a number of steps schools should take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They include:
▪ Physical distancing. The goal should be to stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, spacing desks at least 3 feet apart and avoiding close contact may have similar benefits for students–especially if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness.
▪ Teachers and staff, who are likely more at risk of getting COVID-19 from other adults than from children at school, should stay the full 6 feet apart from each other and students when possible. Teachers and staff should also wear cloth face coverings and limit in-person meetings with other adults. When possible, outdoor spaces can be used for instruction and meals. Students should also have extra space to spread out during activities like singing and exercising.
▪ Cloth face coverings & hand hygiene. Frequent handwashing with soap and water is important for everyone. In addition, all adults should wear cloth face coverings. Preschool and elementary students can benefit from wearing masks if they do not touch their mouths or noses a lot. Secondary school students should wear cloth face masks, especially when they can’t stay a safe distance apart. Classroom changes. To help limit student interaction outside the classroom, schools can:
▪ Have teachers move between classrooms, rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods.
▪ Allow students to eat lunches at their desks or in small groups outdoors instead of in crowded lunchrooms.
▪ Leave classroom doors open to help reduce high touch surfaces such as doorknobs. -Temperature checks and testing. COVID testing of all students is not possible for most schools. Taking students’ temperature at school also may not always be feasible. Schools should establish ways to identify students with fever or other symptoms of illness. They can also frequently remind students, teachers, and staff to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or have any signs of illness.
▪ Cleaning and disinfecting. Schools should follow CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas.
Buses, hallways and playgrounds: Since these are often crowded spaces, schools can: Give bus riders assigned seats and require them to wear a cloth face coverings while on the bus. Encourage students who have other ways to get to school to use those options. At school, mark hallways and stairs with one-way arrows on the floor to cut down on crowding in the halls. Outdoor activities are encouraged, so students should be allowed to use the playground in small groups. In addition to having plans in place to keep students safe, there are other factors that school communities need to address:
Pressure to catch up: Students may not have gained as much from distance learning. Some students may not have had access to computers and the internet. Schools should be prepared to adjust curricula and not expect to make up all lost progress. It is important to balance core subjects with physical education and other learning experiences.
Students with disabilities: The impact of schools being closed may have been greater for students with disabilities. They may have a difficult time transitioning back to school after missing out on instruction time as well as school-based services such as occupational, physical and speech-language therapy, and mental health support counseling. Schools should review the needs of each child with an Individual Education Program before they return to school, and provide services even if they are done virtually.
Immunizations: It is important as students return to the school that they are up to date on their immunizations. It will be critical that students and staff get their flu shot this year to reduce the spread of influenza this fall and winter. Your pediatrician is available now to make sure your child is ready for school.
Exams: If your child participates in extracurricular activities like sports or band, talk with your pediatrician to see if they need a preparticipation physical exam. Key well-child visits are also important.
Behavioral health/emotional support: Your child’s school should anticipate and be prepared to address a wide range of mental health needs of students and staff. Schools should provide mental health support to any student struggling with stress from the pandemic and recognize students who show signs of anxiety or distress. Schools also can help students with suicidal thoughts or behavior get needed support.
Nutrition: Many students receive healthy meals through school meal programs More students might be eligible for free or reduced meals than before the pandemic. Schools should provide meal programs even if the school closes or the student is sick and stays home from school.
Students at higher risk: While COVID-19 school policies can reduce risk, they will not prevent it entirely. Even with safety steps in place, some students with high-risk medical conditions may need to continue distance learning or other accommodations. Talk with your pediatrician and school staff (including school nurses) to determine if your child can safely return to school.
Returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal – at least for a while. But having school plans in place can help keep students, staff, and families safe. Schools should also prepare to close again and temporarily switch to distance learning if there are new waves of COVID-19 infection.
By:Luyimbaazi Issah Katungulu Digital & Communications Officer