These are six main reasons why schools must remain open while implementing rigorous safety protocols and physical distancing:
Schools provide essential meals to hungry children
When schools were open and operational, they provided a nutritious meal to 9 million children every day. Child hunger has more than doubled since the start of lockdown with 1-in-7 people reporting that a child went hungry in their household in the past week. The courts have ordered the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga to reinstate school feeding for all 9 million children immediately. Realistically, schools cannot provide meals to 9 million children if they are closed. While children do not get severely ill from Covid-19, they are at risk of suffering from stunting and malnutrition.
You cannot reopen the economy without reopening schools
There are 4.5 million essential workers in South Africa and 650,000 healthcare workers who are on the frontline of dealing with the pandemic. If schools are closed, what happens to their children while they are at work? We compromise the healthcare system if schools are closed. Furthermore, we have already lost 3 million jobs during 2020, plunging more than 1 million people into food poverty. Parents cannot go back to work if schools are closed.
There is no evidence that schools lead to above-average Covid-19 infections among teachers or pupils
It is true that some teachers have been infected with Covid-19, but it is also true that many teachers were infected even before schools reopened. Teachers are more likely to get infected in their community than at school. An analysis of 709 Gauteng schools shows that Covid-19 infection rates are no higher among teachers than similar people in the Gauteng population. Put differently, just because teachers get infected does not mean they got it at school. Further evidence comes from hospital admission data from the Western Cape during its Covid-19 surge and provides reassuring evidence. Opening schools had little impact on children getting infected with Covid-19 or getting admitted to hospitals.
Medical experts and advisors are saying that children returning to school is what is in the best interests of the child
The South African Paediatric Association, the Ministerial Advisory Committee and the South African Human Rights Commission have all stated clearly that they believe that children returning to school is in the best interests of children. The costs of being locked up at home (potentially alone), are far greater than the small risks they face at school. Children do not get severely ill from Covid-19. Those under the age of 20 make up less than 1% of total Covid-19 deaths in SA.
The World Health Organisation’s recommendation must be contextualised to South Africa
When the WHO is making recommendations, it is doing so for 195 countries. But there is no one size fits all approach. What makes sense for Germany might not make sense for Malawi. What makes sense in South Korea does not make sense in South Africa. They do not have 1 million stunted children, widespread HIV and TB, school feeding schemes etc. South Africa’s own epidemiologists are advising that schools must stay open if we are to fight the pandemic.
School closures will increase inequality
Only 20% of households have a computer and 10% have an internet connection. Closing schools will increase inequality between rich and poor for the next 10 years. Elderly teachers with serious comorbidities should be replaced in schools. Schools that do not have adequate masks and sanitisers should remain closed until they do, but closing all schools will hurt the poor much more than temporarily closing the 10-20% of schools that are not yet ready to open.
Teacher unions are undermining our pandemic response. All other government officials as well as those in the private sector have gone back to work and implemented physical distancing, wearing masks etc. But somehow teachers are different? The evidence is showing that teachers are not at higher risk than others and yet they are being paid whether they work or not. By refusing to work, they are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society that rely on schools at this critical time. By forcing parents to choose between going to work and taking care of their children at home, they are weakening our ability to fight the pandemic.
The question is not: “When is it safe to reopen schools?” The question is: “Does the cost of closing schools outweigh the benefits?” We should not implement a nationwide lockdown again and we should not implement nationwide school closures either. The costs to children and their families are simply too great, and importantly, fighting the pandemic needs all hands on deck and schools need to be open for that to happen. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come “at any cost”. DM/MC
Dr Nic Spaull is a Senior Researcher in the RESEP group at Stellenbosch University.