Bringing students back to schools and campuses or keeping them at home both have negative consequences. Schools and universities have no good options for resuming in-person learning during Covid-19.
A survey conducted by WHO in 39 African countries found that face-to-face learning has resumed in just six countries. Schools remain closed in 14 countries and are partially open for examination classes in 19 countries. In-person learning is planned to resume in 12 countries in September.
The health and socioeconomic cost of school shutdown is colossal and intergenerational. According to Unicef an estimated 10 million children lack access to nutritious meals served at schools. Violence against children has increased. Pregnancy among teenage girls is known to double during extended school shutdown. Moreover, staying at home or remote learning will disrupt social and emotional development of children.
According to the World Bank, school closures in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to a lifetime of earning losses. Losses in earnings are will be aggravated at the household level when you consider reduced earnings or labour output when parents, especially mothers, stay at home to take care of children. This is particularly true for urban households that cannot afford childcare services.
While existing evidence suggests that people under 20 years are half as likely as older adults to contract Covid-19, the public health risks of resuming face-to-face learning remain real. Data from 44 states in the US shows that up to 8.8 per cent of Covid-19 cases among the under twenties did require hospitalisation. Studies have also shown that individuals aged 10-19 spread the virus as much as adults do.
Resuming in-person learning will therefore put teachers, professors, parents and a host of adults who will inevitably make contacts with learners in schools and campuses at risk of contracting Covid-19.
Reopening schools could spark a deadly wave of community infections. It is widely believed that Israel’s vicious second wave of Covid-19 in June was due to schools reopening and infections spiking among children who in turn infected adults.
Resuming face-to-face learning requires rigorously defining and enforcing guidelines and protocols that will allow students and the school community to return while minimizing the risk of contracting Covid-19. This will include mandating masks, regular handwashing and limiting physical interactions by enforcing social distancing. Moreover, resuming in-person learning must be staged and gradual. Not all students should be back to school at the same time. Staggering attendance should be considered.
Achieving the requisite social distancing and improving ventilation in classrooms, hostels and dormitories require new investments in infrastructure and teachers, which most governments in Africa cannot afford. Moreover, to reopen safely, all schools must provide testing and isolation facilities for the students who test positive or have Covid-19 symptoms.
Controlling the spread of Covid-19 in the community is the surest way to hasten school reopening. It makes absolutely no sense to rush to reopening schools and colleges only to quickly close them as soon as students or teachers or other staff test positive for Covid-19.
Alex O. Awiti is Vice Provost at Aga Khan University. Views expressed are the writer’s