๐Ÿ”’ WORLDVIEW: The case for opening schools despite Covid-19

As South Africa lays out its plans for reopening schools on a limited basis, some people are responding with incredulity or even horror. As one Biznews community member expressed it, โ€œThis is a recipe for disaster. I can’t see how the poorer schools out there are going to cope with this.โ€

But, while there are certainly risks associated with schools re-opening, there are actually many good reasons to do it anyway. It all comes down to the balance of risks.

The first important point is that closing schools has major long-term costs, especially for poorer learners and younger learners. Evidence suggests that even short closures have long-lasting effects โ€“ American kids who missed school due to weather disasters did worse on their state exams, Belgian kids affected by a two-month teachersโ€™ strike were more likely to have to repeat a year and less likely to complete university than those who didnโ€™t miss school.

Missing school has a range of effects on kids. First, their knowledge base erodes. Everyone knows that kids lose some learning over the long Christmas holidays โ€“ the same thing happens during school closings, but there is no time or way to make up for the loss with unscheduled closures. Second, their social skills take a knock. Some of the most important stuff kids learn at school is how to work with other people and how to get along in social situations. With schools closed, those skills erode, and it can take a long time to rebuild them (especially when you add in lockdown stress).

Kids who miss school for closures may suffer a permanent reduction in their potential human capital. The economic and personal costs of this can be enormous โ€“ their life chances can be crushingly reduced. Whatโ€™s worse, the kids who suffer the most are usually poorer kids whose parents are less able to teach them at home, either because they lack schooling themselves, lack necessary books and technology, or because they have to work. This means that school closures further undermine poor kidsโ€™ ability to advance economically.

The consequences of school closures also go beyond the obvious. For kids in poor or unsafe households, being at home can be a lot more dangerous than being at school. Many poor kids get much-needed meals at school and for kids with abusive parents, school can be a haven โ€“ and a place where other adults may notice the abuse and take action.

In wealthier homes, there are also knock-on costs associated with school closings in the form of lost parental productivity. Those who are working from home may find themselves constantly interrupted by bored, housebound children. Given the economic costs of Covid-19, we need all the productivity we can get, especially from high wage workers.

So, school closures clearly have major, long-term costs. Now, what about the other side of the equation โ€“ the risks associated with sending kids to school?

Well, for a start, the physical risks to children appear to be low. While there have been a few isolated cases of kids suffering serious illness or death from Covid-19, most children who become infected have only very mild symptoms, if any. Although thereโ€™s a lot we still donโ€™t know about Covid-19, it simply doesnโ€™t seem to target the young โ€“ itโ€™s one of the few good things about the pandemic.

Things are a little less clear on the question of whether kids are a potential vector for spreading the illness to adults. Some studies find limited evidence of child-to-adult transmission, especially from the youngest kids (who are arguably and conveniently the ones who need school most). Switzerland thinks itโ€™s OK for kids to hug their grandparents, a sign of how unlikely child-to-adult transmission is. However, others warn that kids could be key carriers of the virus since they usually have few symptoms.

If kids are a vector for transmission, this could be a problem. Luckily, there are clear ways to combat this. Obviously sick kids could be kept home, and schools could implement distancing measures. Classrooms could perhaps take place outside since outdoor transmission seems less likely. To limit the potential spread of the virus, classes could be done on an alternating basis โ€“ this is what the government seems to be getting at by only allowing some years back in school.

Opening schools comes with risks. But the risks of prolonged school closures are also significant โ€“ and more quantifiable, given the uncertainty in the role schools play in Covid-19 transmission. While there may be those who disagree with government moves to reopen schools, there is a clear case to be made in support of it.

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