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Academic year: Yes, children should go back to school – there is too much at stake

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Debbie Schäfer is the Western Cape MEC for Education.

When safety protocols are followed, as they are at schools, we can limit the spread of the virus. When they are not followed (for example, at a party), cases spread easily. The fact is that we have not seen mass spreading of the virus at schools.

With learners returning to class on Monday, 15 February 2021, there are still high levels of anxiety about how safe it is to start the academic year during an ongoing pandemic. 

Unfortunately, we have also seen various organisations, as well as politicians, stoking fear and anxiety to achieve their own ends. This is exploitative, irresponsible and dishonours the memory of our family, friends and colleagues who we have lost to this virus. 

It also paints our schools as non-essential, “nice-to-have” operations, rather than the vital source of academic and personal support that they are to our learners, and the integral part they play in ensuring future economic growth in our country. 

While anxieties are understandable, it is important to look at facts and science. 

The South African Paediatric Association (Sapa) recently released a position statement on the return of learners to school this year. It lists in detail the currently available medical evidence: 

  • The evidence shows that children are less likely to get, and less likely to spread, Covid-19 than adults. Children are also less likely to get severely ill when they are infected. Sapa explains that while children up to the age of 19 make up 37% of our country’s population, they only account for 9.2% of our Covid-19 cases, and 3.9% of Covid-related hospital admissions. They account for fewer than 1% of severe cases and deaths;
  • Teachers have the same risk of getting infected as other professions do, and schools are not sites of transmission, provided the protocols are followed. They are also not at a high risk of being infected by learners;
  • Internationally, there is little evidence that schools contribute significantly to community transmission;
  • Finally, and very importantly, there are negative consequences to school closure that we cannot ignore. These include learning deficits that are difficult to recover from, lack of access to school nutrition, mental health concerns and the effect on parents’ ability to return to work.

It is also clear that we must continue to implement the safety protocols that we have previously put in place at schools, such as wearing masks, sanitising hands and surfaces and practising physical distancing at all times. 

But what about the new variant? 

We know this is causing great concern both in South Africa and abroad and has spread quickly during the second wave among younger people. Yet our national data reveals that while the new variant does spread more easily, children are not at a higher risk of being infected than before. 

Western Cape data from the department of health confirms that the risk of hospital admission or death of children has not changed with the second wave. 

In the interests of our concern for our staff and learners, we have been closely following the data at our schools.  The pattern of cases among Western Cape education department (WCED) staff members shows that the epidemic curve of the province is matched by the curve of our reported staff cases, which rose as the first wave approached the peak and decreased thereafter. The same pattern was seen in the second wave. 

Schools being open or closed did not affect the curve. 

Most staff cases were reported over the December/January break while schools were closed, precisely in line with the peak of the second wave. This suggests that when cases are reported by schools, they are likely owing to the background infection rates in the community rather than attendance at school. 

The data we have collected over the last year shows that, after combining our staff and learner case data, the overwhelming majority of our schools (81%) have reported fewer than five cases each. In fact, a quarter of our schools have reported no cases at all. 

Moreover, where we saw a larger number of cases reported by a school, they mostly occurred at times of high community case levels or were part of clusters as a result of social or religious events (such as the southern suburbs cluster). 

This tells us something important: when the safety protocols are followed, as they are at schools, we can limit the spread of the virus. When they are not followed (for example, at a party), cases spread easily.

The fact is that we have not seen mass spreading of the virus at schools. The safety protocols were designed with the help of health experts, but we must give credit to our school staff members for ensuring that they follow the golden rules.  

We have received many reports that learners are not following these golden rules when not at school in a supervised environment. 

As I write, I am pleased that our active staff cases continue to drop each week – despite staff returning to schools. They are preparing to receive learners safely from next week. 

The advice for our teachers is that the biggest risk is from other adults, and that the best way to limit risk is to follow the rules, especially distancing, and that the bigger risk is in the staffroom and travelling with other colleagues. I would thus urge them to take special care in these areas. 

We must be honest about the fact that we cannot eliminate risk entirely. 

We continue to face risk everywhere we go, but the facts show that with the safety measures in place, we can go a long way towards keeping our staff and learners safe, while still ensuring that we achieve the vital education, social and psychological support for our children. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]co.za
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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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