Many children better off at school than at home, says child expert

As pupils adapt to the new normal, a paediatric specialist says they could be safer from infection at school than at home.
As pupils adapt to the new normal, a paediatric specialist says they could be safer from infection at school than at home.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Children are probably safer from contracting Covid-19 at school than in their communities, according to a child health expert.

Prof Mignon McCulloch, head of paediatrics at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, says with many parents going back to work under level 3 of the lockdown, many children could face safety issues at home and are therefore better off at school.

While the reopening of schools has created anxiety among parents and teachers, with many fearing that this will exacerbate the transmission of the virus, McCulloch, a member of South African Paediatric Association, said there is no need to panic.

Going back to school will not only give those children who have no access to online resources face-to-face education, but MCulloch argues that it will also also improve their "mental and psychological wellbeing".

“Looking at all the available evidence at the moment, we feel that there are huge advantages in getting kids back to school. This virus could be with us for a very long time and so we want to get our kids educated and get them back to school,” she said.

McCulloch was speaking alongside Western Cape premier Alan Winde, education MEC Debbie Schäfer, provincial education head Brian Schreuder and head of health Keith Cloete on the opening and readiness of schools in the province.

“There is a little bit glimmer of good news in that children seem to be affected less and they transmit less than adults do,” she said.

Since children transmit the virus at very low rates between themselves and adults, McCulloch said adults, including teachers, were more likely to get infected through community transmission.

“We know that they transmit less. Not only do they transmit less from child to child, but we know that they transmit less to adults. This is obviously something that makes teachers feel anxious - are they going to get this virus from the children they are teaching?” she said.

“We know on the whole this is not the case. Adults are much more receptive or prone to getting this virus from their communities or from colleagues, including where they shop [and] the taxis they travel [in].”

She said it is important that schools stick to basics, including wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing, which can be achieved by having staggered breaks.

McCulloch raised concerns about parents' anxiety over sending children to school when some kids were already being taken to shopping centres, “where the risk of getting this virus is as much as if they were going to school”.

The paediatric association therefore agreed with the staggered approach in which different school grades will start at different times.

Going back to school would give access even to poorer children who had not access to online education and had no food security in their homes, she added.

While children with comorbidities should be managed carefully and possibly study from home, McCulloch said children with medical conditions such as asthma, those taking immune suppressants and those with allergies “are going to be OK”.

So far the only two children to have died from Covid-19 at the Red Cross hospital have had severe lung and cardiac defects, which is consistent with the adult population.

Schreuder said the department is currently doing a lot of work to lower the anxiety of teachers and to ensure that “they are as positive as possible’ and impart positive messages to children.

“Teachers need to portray positivity to children while they are managing their own anxieties,” he said.

The education department has so far spent about R280m on the necessary materials - include 2.4 million masks for learners and teachers, over 7,000 digital thermometers and millions of litres of hand sanitiser and disinfectants.

Schäfer said extended school closures did not affect all learners equally, “owing to unequal access to home learning support and the internet”.

“Learners in poorer communities are reliant on in-class teaching to receive their education. The longer schools are closed, the more they are disadvantaged. The gap will only grow between those learners who cannot access education via digital alternatives at home, in our poorer communities in the main, and those who can and do,” she said.

Missing out on the national school nutrition programme could negatively impact children’s health, she added.

Through emergency funding, the Western Cape education department also provided over 1.2 million meals during the lockdown period, said Schäfer.

“This will continue to be sustained through the normal school feeding programme now that schools have reopened again.” 


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