Letter: Reopening schools in winter and before infections peak is a terrible decision - Businesslive

May 04, 2020
4 May 2020 - The timing of reopening schools at the peak of SA’s winter, ahead of the country’s expected first infection peak and ahead of reopening the bulk of the economy, could not be worse.

You quoted the basic education minister saying that “uppermost in our planning is the health and safety of our school communities — particularly learners and teachers” (Schools to only phase in teaching on June 1, April 30).

Roughly six out of 10 children live in extended households that often include older people. Somewhat shy of one-million households are skip-generation households, where a grandparent is the chief caregiver.

The role of young children in transmitting infections is disputed, although the case data is thin and the current advice of the World Health Organisation is that “children and adolescents are just as likely to become infected as any other age group and can spread the disease … It is particularly important that children avoid contact with older people and others who are at risk of more severe disease”.

This is especially appropriate advice in societies where older people tend not to live alone and often have to care for young children. But our concern extends beyond children and families. The decision on opening schools has been made while much of the SA economy remains shut, with no firm indication on when that will change.

The opening of schools will concentrate large numbers of adults and adolescents, in addition to young children, with the risk of schools triggering infection blooms that will divert much-needed tracking and testing resources away from the economic reopening, where those resources will be most needed.

The matric class alone will concentrate more than 500,000 young adults in close proximity to one another daily and then send them back into their households, often via public transport networks, cumulatively triggering many millions of human-to-human contacts daily.

While school closures on their own are deemed to have little benefit in curbing the spread of pandemics, they are seen to be very effective in breaking bridges of transmission into households when used in conjunction with other social-distancing protocols.

The timing of reopening schools at the peak of SA’s winter, ahead of the country’s expected first infection peak and ahead of reopening the bulk of the economy, could not be worse.

Infections transmitted into households and along public transport networks will make their way into newly reopened businesses, leading to government regulators shutting these businesses. If the comings and goings and human contact brought about by school reopenings trigger a sufficiently accelerated infection curve, that may even cause the government to enforce a new hard economic lockdown.

The reopening of school campuses should be delayed until the economic reopening has been sustained and SA’s infection curve is firmly under control after the passing of its first peak.

The SA government mismanaged the last great pandemic to sweep across the country, resulting in terrible human misery for millions. Its mismanagement of the present pandemic, most notably through the foolishness of the nature of the economic lockdown, is resulting in another great wave of suffering.

To prioritise the reopening of schools in the midst of that is to suggest that it has not learnt very much at all. 

Frans Cronje 
Institute of Race Relations


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