Last week, it was reported that the state Health Department went on high alert after eight students and a teacher tested positive for COVID in a school in Coonoor. Following the shutting down of the school and the testing of over 590 individuals, district health officers have been directed to conduct inspections and checks in schools within their jurisdiction, with help from the officials of the Education Department. State Health Minister Ma Subramanian has asked authorities to stay vigilant and ensure that the government’s hard work of unlocking is not laid to waste. This is pertinent considering TN has now decided to reopen schools for Classes 1 to 8 from November 1, and it seems to be a move in the right direction, at least on the face of it.
Even though isolated cases of children contracting the disease have been reported in the past, several studies across the world have proved that COVID-19 poses a much lesser risk to children and adolescents when compared to adults. This inference has also prompted several countries to reopen their schools, especially for the lower classes as smaller children are even less likely, according to ongoing research, than adolescents to get infected by the coronavirus.
However, exercising caution is extremely important before deciding to open up schools fully as there has been no concrete scientific evidence presented yet as to why SARS-CoV-2 virus does not have a severe impact on children. Among the theories proposed so far are that the main receptor for entry of SARS-CoV-2 in the human body, the Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2), is less in children and adolescents when compared to adults, thus restricting the severity of the disease even if one gets infected with the virus. Other theories proposed by scientists across the world include children being exposed to different forms of coronaviruses that end up building up a generic immunity in them, which reduces as one ages. Also, children have a larger proportion of lymphocytes which provides additional protection. But, as is the case with most data related to COVID-19, none of these theories have been proven beyond doubt as yet.
As of date - be it for children or adults - the only proven defence against COVID-19 remains social distancing, wearing masks, and most importantly, getting fully vaccinated. With the country yet to allow vaccination of individuals under 18 against COVID-19, the school education department officials and educationists should be aware that social distancing, strict enforcement of masking, and maintaining ventilated and sanitised campuses are the only means to prevent COVID-19 clusters in classrooms.
While students keeping away from schools for over a year and losing touch with studies is a serious problem, rushing them back to school without adequate safety measures in place may not be prudent either. In TN, educational institutions have witnessed the attendance of just one or two students per classroom in certain government schools in remote parts of the state, which are offset by cramped classrooms packing at least 100 children in more urban areas such as Chennai. The state government, when it comes out with SOPs, should consider the various scenarios and present a foolproof plan to ensure that a third wave does not begin with our children. Staggered and selective functioning of schools is the way forward, and it will ensure that formal education continues without putting our children at risk.