Opinion: Why India’s Schools Should Open Immediately
There is sufficient evidence that vaccination of children is not a prerequisite that opening of schools does not pose additional risk to children or family members and the benefits outweigh any minimal risk. An urgent priority now has to be to develop a plan and roadmap to open schools safely.
India is amongst the few countries where schools have been closed for the longest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end-July 2021, around 175 countries had opened schools. In many, including France, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands, most schools – especially primary schools - had remained open even at the peak of the pandemic or were closed only for a very short duration.
Seventeen months into the pandemic, there is abundant evidence of the damage the prolonged closure of schools has done to the children. UNESCO has estimated that every month away from school results in a learning loss of 2 months. The last 17 months have set children back by almost 34 months. An Asian Development Bank analysis has pointed out that every year of schooling lost is equivalent to 9.7% less earning in the future.
There are many studies on the impact of school closure on learning. A McKinsey report concluded that school shut down in the second quarter of 2020 put students up to six months behind their cohort in academic milestones in comparison to peers who attended in-person classes. The loss of learning was higher for Mathematics than reading and highest amongst the disadvantaged groups. A study from the Netherlands found that while studying from home, eight to 11-year-old children made limited or no progress in learning with disadvantaged groups performing the worst.
There is evidence of the impact of school shutdown on the emotional and mental health of children. During the pandemic, children confined to home experienced challenges within the family and abuse. In the US and UK, studies have reported an uptick in student suicide and children starting on anti-depressant. A UNICEF India report in May 2020 noted that parents of one third of primary-school and half of the secondary-school children noted that their child’s mental and socio-emotional health had been compromised. The ChildLine helpline number received 50% more calls, many for protection or related to child marriage.
Children are naturally protected from severe COVID-19
The Coronavirus (SARS CoV2) enters the human body through the nose and mouth and then travels to the lungs to develop moderate to severe disease. While children do get infected (virus reaches their nose and throat), they do not have sufficiently developed receptors in their lungs – the angiotensin conversion enzyme-II or ACE-II receptors -- which the virus needs to enter the body and make a person sick. That is a reason children get infected but do not develop symptoms or fall sick. A healthy child is at very low risk, ranging from 100 to 8,000 times lower than adults, depending upon the age group.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK have studied data on 137 million school-age children from the US and Europe and concluded that COVID-19 in school-age children is less than half as risky as seasonal flu and 20 times less risky than deaths by unintentional injuries. In Sweden, schools had not been shut in the pandemic and yet, it did not report even a single child death due to COVID-19.
It is based on this and other evidence that UNICEF and UNESCO in a joint statement in July 2021 said that for pandemic-related restrictions, schools should be the last to shut down and the first to open.
Children are already at low risk. Then, findings of the fourth national serosurvey, conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, have reported that 67.6% of the Indian population has antibodies against the virus and that children had a similar rate of infection (thus protected by now) as adults. This has been corroborated by many other state-specific and local surveys.
In reality, children have been playing with their friends in both urban settings (apartments, colonies, lanes in slums) and villages. With schools closed, many are attending in-person tuition classes, which are often crowded. The only thing children are deprived of is formal schooling.
Impact of prolonged school closure
Online learning is a poor substitute for in-person classes. Evidence from various parts of the world shows remote schooling impacts learning negatively. A pre-pandemic study in the US had documented that students in online classes lose 0.1 to 0.4 standard deviation on standardized tests compared to students in the traditional school. Children also miss out on holistic learning which includes behavioural and social skills and physical and mental well-being. Children learn when they meet, communicate and interact with each other in person, in real-life scenarios such as schools. A study by Azim Premji Foundation amongst 16,000 students in five states in age group six to 11 found that 92% lost one specific language ability and 82% lost some mathematical ability.
Even before the pandemic, the quality of education in Indian schools (public and private) was not rated as very high. However, the pandemic has further widened the gap between the learning ability of students attending different types of schools and from different socio–economic strata. There is also a health aspect to the problem of school closure. Around 12 crore of poor children used to get cooked mid-day meals in the schools. With the closure of schools, both education and nutritional status of children are getting affected.
Then, social menaces such as child labour and child marriage have reportedly increased. There are apprehensions that many poor children will never return to school. This is a silent crisis unfolding and we need to take urgent actions.
Apprehensions about school opening in India are unsubstantiated
Indian governments are either reluctant or slow to open the schools. This has partly been influenced by ferocious second wave and projections about the third wave. However, governments are being swayed by fake and now discredited narrativethat the third wave would affect children disproportionately. Some of the public perceptions have been influenced by misleading headlines about how many children are getting infected. There is no denying that children get infected and may test COVID-19 positive. However, it is not getting an infection but what proportion of children gets a severe disease that matters. Fortunately, proportion of children who get moderate to severe disease is very small. We have developed a scientific understanding that children are not likely to get a severe disease. Only the children with pre-existing illness or those who are on treatment for some other condition are at slightly higher risk. We need to be more careful about those children. A healthy child has a very low risk of severe disease.
There are many other unsubstantiated fears around the opening of schools. One group demands that all children be vaccinated; another worries they may carry the virus home. None of these is substantiated by evidence. Vaccination of children is not a prerequisite for opening schools. Schools are open in more than 175 countries but none of the country is administering vaccines to children younger than 12 years. There are studies from US, Italy and other European countries that the risk of a child getting infected from school is similar to the risk at home and much lower than risk at all other settings. The risk of children bringing infection back to home is very low and can further be minimized by vaccination of adult family members.
Opening of schools is only logical step and urgent need
The ongoing school closure is unarguably the worst and longest education disruption in India. More than two-third of Indian families do not have access to smartphones, computers, or the internet. For them, online classes are a distant dream.
India is amongst the few countries, where everything seems to be opening but schools continue to be closed. A few Indian states have started considering opening schools but the pace is painfully slow. We have started resuming our lives with necessary precautions. With a low risk of disease in children, schools in Indian states should open immediately. The priority should be to open primary schools before secondary schools. Surveys in a few Indian cities have reported that 50%-80% of parents in various cities are willing to send their children to school. Those who have access to all the tools for online learning can continue online learning for their children. However, this discussion should be guided not by individual but ‘societal perspective’ and each of us has to think of the nearly 70% of children, mostly from rural areas, urban slums and other disadvantaged groups who are facing the maximum learning and nutritional loss, due to the prolonged school closure.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a reality, with many unknowns, including how long it will last. Then, the SARS CoV2 will be around for many more years. We cannot sit and wait for a solution that is still in the future or for the problem to pass away. In the ongoing pandemic, there is a small risk of infection even if someone stays at home. There are far higher benefits in bringing children back to classroom learning. Indian states need to urgently restart the schools. The focus of discussion now should be how to open schools safely.
Dr Chandrakant Lahariya (MBBS, MD), a physician and a trained epidemiologist, is a public policy expert with nearly two decades of work experience including that of working with the United Nations system, for 13 years. He tweets @DrLahariya and is available at email@example.com, to respond to queries and concerns of the parents and school principals and teachers.
This is the first of a four-part series on COVID-19 and schools in India.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.