Is Education an Unnecessary Casualty of Covid-19?

Neither Reason Nor Science Seems to Be Behind the Government’s Decision to Close Schools for In-Person Classes

(OPINION)

American writer Mark Twain famously said, “I don’t let my schooling come in the way of my education.” However, for 581 million Indians below the lower-middle-income poverty line, the struggle to earn a living often limits the time they have to educate their children at home. So, schools remain an important source of learning, and suspending in-person classes has detrimental effects.

Evidence – scientific and otherwise – suggests that opening schools is feasible.

Among all the age-groups, young adults and children are least susceptible to the virus, and there’s no reason why they should be deprived of a sense of normalcy.

Two top medical professionals, one from University of Oxford and the other from Harvard University, recently pointed out in an op-ed, “To be scientific about it, we must look at Sweden. It was the only major western country that kept day care and schools open for all children ages 1 to 15 throughout the height of the pandemic in the spring. Without any masks, testing, contact tracing or social distancing, there were exactly zero COVID-19 deaths among the 1.8 million children in this age group, with only a few hospitalisations.”

So children are low risk but what about the adults in the family? A cohort study of over 12 million people in the U.K. in October found that living with children 0-11 years was not associated with increased risks of recorded SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Yet another concern may be about asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 – getting infected by people not showing symptoms – within the classroom if schools are reopened.

A recent study, published in the science journal Nature, examined the impact of the easing of restrictions post-lockdown on 10 million residents of Wuhan in China, including children aged six and above. No new symptomatic cases and 300 asymptomatic cases were identified among 9.8 million people. Put differently, only 0.003 percent got affected.

Yet another study examined the impact of school closures and openings in Germany, using staggered summer holidays and openings, on COVID-19 spread. Neither the closures nor the openings had any impact on school children or adults.

Although these studies show that children are neither hotbeds of the virus nor a major source of infection spread, it certainly does not imply moving to the other end of the spectrum and throwing all caution to the wind. After all, the virus is real and generally quite risky to the elderly and those with comorbidity.

A balanced and pragmatic approach is called for. And that can begin with considering how schools can reopen rather than have a blanket rule to shut all schools.

Of course, a majority of private schools are “open.” They are conducting online classes and programs, albeit with reduced hours. Apart from the fact that remote education is of limited efficacy, for most schools and children, online school is not an option.

Although smaller schools will probably be able to make progress with limited remote education, online classes are not feasible for most and may exacerbate socioeconomic inequality. Given an adverse psychological impact and an immunity compromise that the lockdown of schools potentially create, it is important to consider the costs and benefits of in-person schooling.

With no in-person classes, children are missing out on an opportunity to escape poverty given the already pervasive problem of drop-outs across several grades. And school closures have led to children moving to labour activities which are often dangerous and will likely reverse any gains in social mobility and children’s health. 

What policy would help schools open for in-person classes? The right response would be for the schools to self-determine. Surely, if business and shops can figure out how best to serve consumers then so can schools.

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Risks are best assessed by individuals. Indeed, notwithstanding 151,113 annual deaths due to traffic accidents in India and over 1.35 million deaths per year worldwide, individuals still determine whether to ride or drive or commute at all. That decision is based on juxtaposing the expected risks against expected benefits. Apart from the individual and those in familial proximity, others are unlikely to have the information to ascertain the best course of action.

The government can certainly help by disseminating information about potential risks. But a one-size-fits-all strategy limits liberty and is not welfare-enhancing.

By removing unnecessary regulatory burden, governments can help empower schools, and in turn, the citizens. For instance, it may help to give schools the additional autonomy to adjust class timings and days to respond to local conditions.

Surely, teachers and principals who can be trusted with the responsibility to educate children are capable of also planning if and when, and how to hold classes. Likewise, parents know and care more about their children than unrelated and distant “experts.”

India has over 1.5 million schools and over 260 million students. But for most parents and children, that is of no consolation until schools can decide to open and operate freely. 

Given the continuously growing knowledge of the limited risks of COVID-19 for children and the immense cost of school closures, a responsible mandate would unshackle schools and rescind compulsory closure so they can devise ways to overcome and open.

(Dr. Nikhil Jha teaches economics at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous) in Bengaluru. Views are personal.)

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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