After over 600 days, Covid-19 is back to school as it shows symptoms of waning in India. There is growing evidence from around the world that schools can be opened securely, and that once mitigating measures are in place, these institutions are not super-spreader spaces. However, two sources of concern have emerged. Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported at a number of educational institutions around the country, and the new sub-variant, Omicron, has sparked worldwide worry. The mutation is being tracked by the national genomic surveillance programme, which is attempting to determine if it is becoming a serious epidemiological concern in India.
Nonetheless, there are various reasons to be optimistic. Adult and child populations were virtually equally exposed to the virus, according to a statewide survey undertaken by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in June-July 2021. Seropositivity in adults is owing to both natural infections (from the start of the pandemic) and vaccination, whereas seropositivity in children is attributable to natural infection. Adult and child infection rates are extremely similar in nature, and staying at home has not prevented children from becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Both the first and second waves of data from India reveal that, while infection rates are similar, symptomatic disease in children is significantly lower — and severe disease requiring hospitalisation and the possibility of death is extremely rare. As a result, infected youngsters may not display symptoms but nevertheless contribute to the virus’s spread in the community.
Vaccination of persons above the age of 18 is progressing well in India. This has drastically altered the country’s pandemic immunological security environment; viral transmission has decreased and is predicted to continue to slow. Teachers are also highly exposed to the virus, with up to 90% of them being infected.
Vaccination of children is not required right away. If they are not already immunised, all adults in their homes and schools, including teachers and staff members, should be vaccinated as soon as possible. The goal is to raise children in an adult-vaccinated environment.
Several countries have been immunising their children with Covid-19 vaccines in recent months. Even as the chance of serious disease decreases, parents must be satisfied that opening schools poses little risk to their children’s safety, and that the benefits of “return to school” exceed the disadvantages of keeping the children at home.
The youngest children, those in primary school, are at the lowest risk of developing a serious illness. India will soon have four to five homegrown vaccines tested in paediatric populations for safety and efficacy. While children’s immunisation is anticipated to take precedence in the next months, parents should not wait for paediatric vaccination before allowing their children to attend school because it is crucial for their general development.
The “Three Cs” tend to define outbreaks in schools and other places where young people congregate: closed spaces with insufficient ventilation, crowded locations with numerous people, and close contact (conversations or physical exercises in close proximity). There are detailed cautions for schools and classrooms, as well as for high-risk individuals. Administrative (attendance and admission restrictions), cohorting (keeping kids and instructors in small groups that do not mix), establishing safety bubbles or capsules, staggering the breaks in schools, and providing arrangements for alternate physical presence are all examples of school-level responsibilities (attending school on alternate days, alternate school shifts). The infrastructure and resources at the school level, such as ventilation, water supply, and toilets, may need to be significantly strengthened to ensure safety in educational environments. Handwashing facilities should be plentiful, and schools should have distinct entry and exit points.
In all of this, one important aspect of educational institutions should not be overlooked: they are fundamental for children’s socialisation.
Although every precaution should be taken, students should not be kept away from playgrounds. Other important requirements include reorganising school transportation to comply with Covid safety rules, as well as continuing school-based services that give psychosocial support to children, such as feeding and immunisation programmes. Physical separation is a major theme in the classroom actions (at least one metre in districts or sub-districts with community or cluster transmission). Children aged 12 and up should remain at least one metre apart from one another, and teachers and support workers should follow suit. Other important considerations are mask use (children above the age of two should follow adult mask requirements), frequent hand hygiene/respiratory etiquette, and workstation space or grouping of youngsters.
The WHO emphasises that decisions on full or partial closure or reopening should be made at the local administrative level, guided by statistics on virus transmission at these levels (districts or sub-districts) and the extent to which reopening of these institutions may affect community transmission. It is recommended that districts with no or occasional instances maintain all schools open and undertake Covid-19 prevention and control measures. Cluster transmission districts can keep most schools open while considering closing schools in regions where clusters are expanding. Community transmission areas will very certainly need school closures, especially if the number of Covid-19 cases requiring hospitalisation continues to rise.
The Covid-related policy of “staying at home while sick” should be advocated and implemented. To roll out and sustain these processes, frequent interactions between the school administration, community leadership, parents’ groups, and teachers’ organisations are essential. School life will be different during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aryan Jakhar works as an Editor-in-Chief at The Shining Media. Also, he is an editor at YouthPolitician (digital media situated in Taiwan). He writes his opinions on social issues at YouthKiAwaaz and also on his blogger website.