Is it time, to open the schools?

I recently read an article written by Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, about her case to reopen the schools. The main argument given by her is that children are not the main carrier of the COVID-19 epidemic. What she means is that the mortality rate among children is very less and they are less likely to pass that on to adults. She strengthens her argument, explaining that because most of the children are asymptomatic, they have lesser viral loads, and hence if an adult gets Corona Virus from a child, it is not going to be severe.

However, COVID-19 data from India, reveals that the mortality rate among Indian youth is high as compared to other countries. It may be because children and youth are exposed to bad air quality in many Indian cities. This has already been proved in the United States, where black people are found to be more susceptible to COVID-19. Most of the black communities reside near industries, exposing them to pollution and affecting their lungs and overall health.

Another point mentioned by the author is that because most of the children are asymptomatic, they don’t carry viral loads to severely affect the adult. However, in one of the references mentioned by the author, it is stated that more research needs to be carried out to validate the point that asymptomatic children do not carry viral loads to severely impact adults.

The author makes a casual statement affirming that children hardly interact with individuals who are above 70 years (most likely to be severely impacted by COVID 19). Again, the point may be valid in the United States but doesn’t imply to other countries. For example, in India, it is very common to find three generations of family living together. There is a lot of interaction between grandparents and children.

According to the author, healthcare workers have to take care of their children because the schools are closed. If the hospitals get burdened with Covid-19 patients, the mortality rate will increase as healthcare workers will be busy taking care of their children. Again, the research conducted to strengthen the argument was based in the United States and doesn’t necessarily imply to countries like India. In most of the families in India, mothers are not the only caretaker as support is provided by grandparents and close family members.

Nevertheless, a point put by the author that cannot be argued against is the increased exposure to physical, emotional, and sexual violence that children are facing because of the school lockdown. Years of research have already shown that when children are out-of-school especially girls in developing countries, they are more likely to face social malice like child marriage. As rightly pointed out by the United Nation, the lockdown has created a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence against women & children.  Vikas Puthran of ChildLine says that “In the 10 days of the lockdown – between 20 and 31 March, we saw a 50% increase from the typical period – normally would receive two lakh calls but this time we received around three lakhs. ”

The author also points out that children’s mental health is deteriorating during the lockdown. Monkey Sports, a social enterprise that works with children, conducted a mental & physical health survey which shows that the children are feeling more sad, angry, and irritated during the lockdown. Another relevant argument by Henrietta Fore is that millions of children, particularly those living in rural areas and from poor families rely on schools as a lifeline to meals, support in times of distress, health screenings, and therapeutic services. This is also relevant to India, as many families can not afford to provide a balanced diet to children. Many children are malnourished and families have to rely on mid-day meals provided in government schools and Anganwadi’s.

The author has accurately pointed out few stressing issues such as mental health, increased exposure of a girl child to child marriage, and unavailability of food for marginalized children. Opening up the school may be able to address these issues. However, we are not sure of the effect of the transmission of COVID-19 from a child to an adult. We are not sure whether the COVID-19 transmitted from the asymptomatic children, will be mild or severe.

In a country like India, it is very difficult to maintain social distancing in schools. The schools can have 60-70 children in one small class. Even if the number of children is halved, it would be very difficult to maintain social distancing rules. Schools could easily become the epicenter for the Corona Virus spread. Even if most of the children do not get affected, they could easily pass it onto adults.

We all have an irk to keep our children physically and mentally healthy. But should it come at the cost of the lives of people? A country like India already has an under-resourced health care system. We need more evidence to prove that children do not carry viral loads and that they cannot severely infect an adult. Time to reopen the school? No, not yet!

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