Scientists not always qualified to advise on sending children back to school

Jonathan Jansen
Jonathan Jansen

South Africa  has some of the best medical scientists on the planet. Most of them were born in the country, attending schools and sometimes universities at home; some of these great minds have gone on to win the Nobel prize (Brenner, Klug, Levitt, Theiler, Cormack) not to mention of course those giants of literature who won the ultimate prize (Gordimer, Coetzee).

Scientists such as Professor Shabir Mahdi (virology), Prof Glenda Gray (vaccine science), Prof Jimmy Volmink (clinical epidemiology), Prof Quarraisha Abdool Kareem (infectious diseases) and the late Bongani Mayosi (cardiology) count as world class scholars who would be swallowed up by leading international universities if they circulated their curriculum vitae among colleagues abroad.

It is because of these impressive scientists that our government has been able to benefit from the best advice on managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

But these top scientists are not infallible. Like all researchers, they differ and fight among themselves. Like all human beings, they can become beholden to power (remember the Aids fiasco during the former President Thabo  Mbeki years?).

And sometimes their mistakes can be costly. Now, as the most recognisable face of the medical science community during the pandemic, Dr Saleem Abdool Karim recently told me: “Nobody is absolutely right or absolutely wrong” about when and how schools should reopen.

He is right in the sense that the emerging data on Covid-19 related infections, illness and death change as informed opinion becomes solid research (in the early days of the pandemic, Fauci argued that face masks were unnecessary), as small investigations become larger studies, and as cross-national research replaces locally based ones. You can cherry pick your data and make almost any argument that favours your personal views or your political agenda.

Where our medical scientists become dangerous, however, is when they are blind to their own assumptions about their prescriptions for the public good

Where our medical scientists become dangerous, however, is when they are blind to their own assumptions about their prescriptions for the public good.

One particularly irritating habit is when the media asks a top scientist: “Would you send your child to school during this pandemic?” Often the South African response is, “yes, absolutely.”

Here’s the problem. These scientists are from the upper echelons of society, live in the leafy suburbs where positivity rates are low, and send their children to the top public and private schools.

Their children do not travel to and from schools in packed taxis. Their schools have all the mitigating measures in place from small classrooms to running water to hand sanitisers, to online learning options for a blended education experience.

In that moment of media hubris, the journalist does not raise the question of the effects of inequality. The scientist sits there blissfully unaware of the fact that the answer to school reopening inside a pandemic depends squarely on whether you live and use a school in the pleasant parts of Orange Grove or the squatter settlements of Orange Farm.

If you can guarantee my child a classroom with 10-12 pupils  spread across a large classroom, a hygiene regime that functions like clockwork, private travel to and from school, regular testing of teachers and other staff, I too might (re-) consider my views on whether to send my child for face-to-face (literally) teaching.

What is further disturbing about scientists making bold statements about public education, is that their disciplinary lens is focused narrowly on the relatively lower chances of infection, illness, and death among children. It is as if children teach themselves, as if they cannot infect others, including the adults in the classroom, and as if they do not go back home to live with older and sometimes vulnerable family members.

The scientists making these firm declarations about reopening are not experts on schools as organisations; they have little idea about how humans interact in this bounded facility for upwards of five hours a day and what this compact, congested and often chaotic environment portends for teaching and learning under conditions that are safe for the health of both children and adults.

A narrow view of science is the problem. The unspoken assumption about acceptable losses is the problem (‘there will be deaths in school and society, we just can’t say it’).

The failure to establish multidisciplinary teams that include education specialists (among others) alongside virologists is the problem.

The halo effect in our perception of scientists is the problem.

And the racial and class biases of scientists when they make audacious statements about school re-openings in settings they know nothing about, is a very serious problem.

Make no mistake, I love and respect the world of science which is what propelled me into an early career in science teaching.

But I am also aware of the limitations of science not simply as an intellectual matter but in a pandemic context where lives are on the line.

For science to be effective it must listen more broadly before it speaks.


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