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Why 'cool outweighs cruel' when it comes to schools reopening

By Sheree Bega Time of article published Jun 1, 2020

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Is the return to school “cruel or cool”? For paediatrician and allergist Professor Claudia Gray, the cool outweighs the cruel.

“The Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease complex termed Covid-19, has been the focus of most of our attention, energy and anxiety for the past few months. While it’s indeed a virus which is highly infectious and causes a severe respiratory illness in some, for most it behaves like just another winter cold,” she said.

The balance between regaining some sense of normality yet shielding the elderly and vulnerable is a hard one to strike. “From next week schools are destined to open in a (hopefully) controlled fashion. Bearing in mind this is a new entity with rapidly evolving evidence, we know Sars-CoV-2 is droplet-spread by close contact with an infected person or by contact with infected surfaces, followed by hand-to-face contamination," she said.

"This makes the group setting tricky at the best of times, let alone with naturally gregarious and feely-touchy-face-rubbing children.”

But, there is one “glimmer in the dark” Covid-19 tunnel - it is not primarily a disease of children, as many other viruses are. Children, Gray says, generally handle the virus much better than adults: children form a minority of those identified as having Covid-19.

Children under the age of 18 make up less than 2% of all hospital admissions. It is extremely rare for children to develop serious complications and mortality in children is negligible.

Recently, a serious complication in children, possibly Covid-19-related, called paediatric multi-system inflammatory disease, was identified, but is extremely rare. “A child’s chance of dying from other viruses such as chickenpox or influenza or by car accident is higher than that from Covid-19.”

Transmission from child to adult, and probably from child to child, seems uncommon from current literature and case studies.

Children are not Covid-19 “super-spreaders” and are more likely to catch the virus from infected adults at home than at school. “Of course, we need to make the school environment as safe as possible, paying attention to detail and not just paying lip-service to the ‘checklist’ making schools ready,” said Gray

Her 10-point plan for school readiness includes identifying and shielding vulnerable learners and teachers; preparatory deep cleaning, disinfection and surface protection; and face masks or face shields for all over the age of 2.

“The age-old trick of hand-washing with clean water and soap remains a stalwart in reducing virus transmission. Regular hand-sanitising with good quality sanitiser with 60% alcohol is a good measure in between.”

There must be provision for regular surface disinfection at intervals during the day as well as for screening stations at the start of the day.

Social distancing strategies include fewer than 20 learners in a class, desks spaced 1.5m apart, set ‘groups, minimal inter-classroom movement of learners and staggered break times. “Each school will have to tailor-make their own distancing-design to match their set of circumstances.”

Large gatherings and buffet-style catering must be avoided, if possible, and a system must be in place for detection and contact tracing. Parents must not “let their guard down” outside of schools.“The incredibly important role of schools in the general wellbeing of children must be remembered when navigating the see-saw of risk versus the benefit of school-opening.

“Psychological and physical benefits complement the educational endeavours. For some, school is the chief source of sustenance and solace.”

The natural exponential curve of the pandemic will see numbers rising substantially over the next two months.

“Unfortunately it will coincide with schools re-opening and false blame may be given to the role of schools in the spread. Let’s work on evidence and experience rather than emotion.”

The Saturday Star

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