Back-to-school: Strategies for reopening schools during the Covid-19 pandemic

Recently, the Ministry of Education (MoE) proposed to re-open schools for grades IX and XI along with grades X and XII after the lockdown. Thenceforth, it has been one of the most debated and important issues regarding the reopening of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic on social media.

Despite the increasing number of Covid -19 positive cases, if MoE decides to go ahead with the reopening of the classes IX and XI, it will significantly reduce the damage to education, social development, and physical and mental health of children and adolescents as a result of social isolation, reduced social support and increased exposure to domestic violence. Undoubtedly, these harms will inevitably be greater in poorer families.

However, it is a widely held view that the health, safety, and well-being of students, teachers, staff, and their families are critical considerations in determining whether schools should re-open for face-to-face learning.   

More recently, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that children and young people may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus or develop Covid -19. Although Covid -19 tends to be less serious in children and adolescents; however, relatively few students are reported to have died from the Covid -19. Several studies have shown that children are not super-spreaders of the virus and, in fact, may not contribute significantly to the spread of the virus.

For example, a recent study found that children and youth under the age of 20 are 56% less likely to contact Covid -19 from infected people than adults. The findings of this study suggest that children and young people may play an insignificant role in transmitting the virus in the community. In addition, one study examined nearly 200 children who visited emergency care clinics or hospitals with suspected Covid -19, of whom nearly 50 tested positive. Most of the children were not particularly ill, and only half of the children who tested positive had a fever.

However, there are few incidences, where some schools that have already re-opened had to close within a week due to exposure to confirmed Covid -19 cases, therefore indicating that detailed guidelines are required on when to re-open and how to re-open. This is evident in the case of Israel, where schools fully reopened on May 17, 2020, but 10 days later, a severe coronavirus outbreak occurred at the school.

Considering all this evidence and valuable insights from other countries, there are two basic strategies currently being adopted in the reopening of the school during the Covid-19 pandemic. One is the rota system, the other is the cohort.

The first strategy is to allow schools to operate in a rota system, in which students spend two weeks at school, followed by two weeks at home. This strategy will allow symptoms to appear more than enough and students will be able to isolate themselves and prevent transmission of the virus to others. Likewise, schools may choose to operate a one-week rotation (for example, 5 days in school, followed by 9 days at home) if this is necessary for the actual delivery of the curriculum. However, experts suggest that the rota system lengths should not be less than a week, as this does not provide enough time for symptoms to present. Furthermore, schools should plan to utilize time over the weekend effectively to prepare for a different rota group at the start of the week.

The second important strategy is the cohort (or the formation of “pods”). The cohort consists of forming groups of students, teachers, or staff who stay together throughout the school day so that only those within a cohort have close contact with each other and no one else. This reduces exposure and helps prevent the spread of Covid -19 in the school environment. It also helps in the traceability of contact if someone within the cohort is positive and allows for targeted testing, quarantine, and isolation of a single cohort instead of the entire school.

This strategy can prevent the spread of Covid -19 by limiting the crossing of students, teachers, and staff as much as possible; consequently, it helps decrease Covid -19 exposure or chances for transmission. It also facilitates more efficient contact tracing in the case of a Covid -19 positive case and allows for targeted testing, quarantine, and isolation of a single cohort rather than school-level measurements in the case of a Covid -19 positive case or group of cases.

The goal of creating more than one cohort is to reduce the density of students in the classroom, thus helping to analyze how reopening at full capacity compares to reopening at half-capacity with the remaining students continuing distance learning or rotating cohorts between alternating weeks or three weeks.

Recent research has suggested that reduced class density by rotating cohorts between face-to-face and online classes likely have the greatest impact on reducing the spread of Covid -19 caused by resuming in-person classroom instruction. It has been reported that a combination of different strategies will substantially reduce the prevalence of Covid -19. Moreover, these results would seem to suggest that reducing class density and implementing rapid viral tests, even with imperfect detection, have a greater impact than moderate measures to mitigate transmission.

Taken together, a reasonable approach to reopening of the school during the COVID-19 pandemic could be to use a rota system or cohort. Therefore, the MoE could incorporate any abovementioned strategies along with proper social and physical distancing, and importantly; support for students, teachers, staff, and venerable students should be a priority for MoE and schools.

Contributed by

Singay

Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan

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