Back to School: To re-open or not to re-open


By Henrylito D. Tacio


“We are going into a ‘new normal’ because we are creating a brave new world and we have to start with the children to give them courage, to give them initiative, to help them look at problems realistically, and to continually have hope and confidence that we will overcome.  So on to the brave new world!”

This was what Secretary Leonor M. Briones of the Department of Education said during an online press conference last May 11.

Indeed, it was a bold statement.  But then, there are parents who are afraid that their children may get SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) while attending school.  “My child may get infected if he goes with other children,” a mother said.  “We don’t know if one of children may have the disease.”

Another mother stated, “If the threat of the virus is still imminent, then, we should consider not to re-open.  Education is not our top priority right now; instead it is to survive.”

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) is very much aware of these concerns.  This is the reason why it has issued a document with school-related public health measures to consider in this time of COVID-19.

The document, which was drafted based on a review of available literature, discussion with experts, regional partners and country examples, “provides considerations for decision-makers and educators on how or when to reopen or close schools in the context of COVID-19.”

Classroom as it used to be

According to the document, decision-makers should consider the following when deciding on whether to open or close schools: current understanding about COVID-19 transmission and severity in children; local situation and epidemiology of COVID-19 where the school(s) are located; and school setting and ability to maintain COVID-19 prevention and control measures.

“Additional factors to consider in deciding how or when to partially close or open schools include assessing what harm might occur due to school closure (examples: risk of non-return to school, widening disparity in educational attainment, limited access to meals, domestic violence aggravated by economic uncertainties, etc.) and the need to maintain schools at least partially open for children whose caregivers are ‘key workers’ for the country.”

Physical distancing

So far, here’s what the world knows about COVID-19 and children: “Children are less often reported as cases than adults, and that infection generally causes mild disease.  Serious illness due to COVID-19 is seen infrequently in children, although there have been rare cases of critical illness.  The role of children in transmission remains unclear and additional data is needed, including from age-stratified sero-epidemiologic surveys.”

The document, which was released last May 10, stated that there have been few educational institutions involved in COVID-19 outbreaks “to date.” Based on available studies, “it appears that disease transmission was primarily related to social events linked to school or university life rather than transmission within classrooms.”  The said studies also suggest that the introduction of the virus was likely by an adult member of staff.”

The document provides some prevention and control measures that must be observed should schools open soon.  “When schools are fully or partially open, COVID-19 prevention and control strategies should be maintained,” it said.

Writing

The following strategies and adaptations should be in place whenever possible before, during and after school reopening:

Hygiene and daily practices at school:

  • Educate everyone in the school about COVID-19 prevention, including appropriate and frequent hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, face mask use if mandated, symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if someone feels sick.
  • Enforce the policy of “staying at home of unwell” for students, teachers or school staff with symptoms.
  • Observe physical distancing measures in transportation such as school buses, and tips for students on safe commute to and from school, including those using public transport.
  • Consider daily screening for body temperature, and history of fever or feeling feverish in the previous 24 hours, on entry into the building for all staff, students, and visitors to identify persons who are sick.
  • Inform parents and guardians about the measures the school is putting in place and ask for cooperation to report any cases of COVID-19 that occur in the household.  If someone in the household is suspected to have COVID-19, keep the child home and inform the school.
  • Limit mixing of classes for school and after-school activities.  For example, students in a class will stay in one classroom throughout the day, while teachers move between classrooms; or classes could use different entrances, if available, or establish an order for each class to enter and leave the building/classroom.
  • Expand high-school timetable, with some students and teachers attending in the morning, others in the afternoon, and others in the evening.
  • Move lessons outdoors or ventilate rooms as much as possible.
  • Create awareness to ensure the students do not gather and socialize when leaving the school and in their free time.
  • Initiate or continue tele-schooling or similar method, by blended methods where necessary and possible (example: some student groups could take online classes, learn from home through homework assignments, blogs, engage in at home physical activity).
  • If tele-schooling is not possible, invite students to take textbooks home or arrange to deliver assignments.  Consider radio or television broadcasts of lessons, arrange a buddy system for homework with older siblings at home, or with friends by telephone.

Monitoring of schools after re-opening:

As protective school measures are applied, it is also important to monitor a range of factors such as:

  • Effectiveness or tele-schooling interventions: how well has the school been able to develop tele-schooling strategies; what proportion of children were reached; and what is the feedback from students, parents and teachers?
  • The effects of policies and measures on educational objectives and learning outcomes;
  • The effects of policies and measures on health and well-being of children, siblings, staff, parents, and other family members; and
  • The trend in school dropout after lifting the restrictions.
Back to school

“Inclusive and early collaboration between the school and the community is needed to develop and implement necessary measures,” the United Nations health agency states.  “It will be important to maintain flexibility and modify approaches as needed, and to ensure learning and sharing of good practices.”

On the other hand, “completely closing schools without putting in place context-appropriate distance learning methods, wherever possible, and adaptive strategies to reduce potential harms may not be the best or only solution and should only be considered when alternatives are not available.” – ###

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