BACK TO SCHOOL DEBATE | Children should go back to school - health experts
With education officials and teacher unions still at loggerheads on whether it is safe to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, child health-care experts have stressed it is near impossible to prevent children from getting the virus. Depriving children of heading back to school was therefore pointless, the experts said.
The debate around the risk for children came as the national education department on Sunday evening postponed the reopening of schools for grade 7s and matrics by a week.
“We need to move away from the idea, and the sooner we do so, the better for everyone that we are going to prevent children from getting infected from the coronavirus,” said Professor Shabir Madhi who specialises in vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
He was speaking at a webinar hosted by the South African Paediatric Association last week. The discussion was around whether it was safe to send children back to school.
“We have never been able to prevent children from getting infected from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) or influenza which causes more children to die [than the coronavirus],” he said.
Madhi said the current data showed that though children were getting infected, very few of them were dying from the virus.
He said globally, of the 300,000 people that had died from the coronavirus, fewer than 100 of them were children.
“In Italy, where 30,000 died on the 1st of May, none of them were children,” he said.
In SA, by Sunday well over 31,000 had been infected by the coronavirus since the outbreak. More than 650 of the coronavirus infected patients had died and of the total fatalities only four were children younger than 20.
Madhi said there was something important about this data.
“We don’t see large numbers of children anywhere in the world, infants, neo-natals, dying from Covid-19 which means there is something that is happening that is protecting children from developing severe disease,” he said.
He said keeping children away from school would not be beneficial, as besides depriving children from education, others were suffering even greater as they were not receiving the daily meals which they were receiving through the public schools feeding schemes.
Madhi said: “If the starting point is that we don’t want our children to be infected, then we need to close the schools for two to three years,” he added.
Currently, he said, it was possible that children were being exposed to the coronavirus from their own parents who were parents asymptomatic and these children were not suffering any health issues from this.
Keeping children away from school now, with the hope that the virus would lessen in the days to come was fruitless, he added
“The big problem is that from two months from now, we may have much more Covid-19 than we have right now, in fact [then] we might well need to close the schools right about August, September when we really get the surge in terms of the number of cases,” he said.
“So it’s a decision that we need to make. We are either going to open schools now or accept that there is not going to be school this year. We can reassess early next year but I will be highly surprised if by March, we are any better than where we are now,” he said.
Dr Fiona Kritzinger, who is a paediatric pulmonologist, agreed.
She said she saw no reason in the vast children of healthy children being permitted to return to school.
Kritzinger said “the biggest fear for parents was the worst case scenario which is death” but the data and science which was evident showed that the chances of death from the coronavirus in children was significantly low.
She suggested that the risk of deaths this winter should be weighed against the risk that was present last year.
“Children do die each day for various reasons but I do not think the risk of death for children this year is higher than it was last winter,” she said