School’s out – again. But it doesn’t matter, say virus experts

News

School’s out – again. But it doesn’t matter, say virus experts

As the debate rages about reopening, medical minds insist it’s perfectly okay to send kids back to class

Journalist
Child healthcare experts say keeping children from school won't prevent them from contracting the virus.
School of thought Child healthcare experts say keeping children from school won't prevent them from contracting the virus.
Image: Rawpixel Ltd/Istock.com

The back-to-school debate rages on as a last-minute announcement by the national education department on Sunday night delayed the reopening of schools by another week.

Teacher unions and school governing bodies said schools were not ready to teach in a safe environment, and basic education minister Angie Motshekga, after lengthy consultations, agreed to halt Grade 7s and matrics from going back on Monday.

While the school storm rages – the Western Cape decided to reopen despite the department’s instruction – health experts insist it is relatively safe to send your child back to school. 

During a webinar child healthcare experts said it was nearly impossible to prevent kids from getting the virus. Not allowing them back to school was therefore pointless.

“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 Prof Shabir Madhi who specialises in vaccinology at Wits  University.

He was speaking at a webinar hosted by the SA 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.

While children were contracting the coronavirus, very few of them were dying from the virus, the health department said.
While children were contracting the coronavirus, very few of them were dying from the virus, the health department said.
Image: TimesLIVE

Madhi said the current data showed that although children were becoming infected very few of them were dying from the virus.

He said that globally, of the 300,000 people who 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 deaths, only four were children, between the ages of zero and 19.

Madhi said there was something important about this data.

“We don’t see large numbers of children anywhere in the world, infants, neonatals, 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, since besides depriving children of an education, many were suffering even more because they were not receiving daily meals 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 asymptomatic, and these children were not suffering any health problems from this.

Children were possibly being exposed to their parents who had contracted the virus but very few of them were dying from the virus.
Children were possibly being exposed to their parents who had contracted the virus but very few of them were dying from the virus.
Image: TimesLIVE

Keeping children away from school now, in the hope that the virus would lessen in the days to come, was fruitless, he added  

“The big problem is that 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.”

Dr Fiona Kritzinger, a paediatric pulmonologist, agreed. She said she saw no reason for healthy children not being permitted to return to school.

“The biggest fear for parents was the worst-case scenario, which is death,” but the data showed the risk of death among was significantly low.

She suggested that the risk of deaths this winter should be weighed against the risk that was present in 2019.

“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.