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Calculated risk

In early April, an unprecedented 1.5 billion children worldwide were staying home as schools and other educational institutions shut down. That was a time of drastic action when not knowing enough about the contagion and its spread meant that such actions were the only hope of bringing down the infection spread. Now, months later, humanity has learned much about the virus but quite enough to bring complete normality to the disrupted everyday. Regardless, as many leaders and commentators have said, society cannot afford to wait any longer. COVID-19 is likely to be a lasting feature of daily lives for at least a few years. It is simply not feasible to expect essential institutions like education to be put on hold until the pandemic subsides.

Thus, presently, many educational bodies and institutions across the world are engaged in efforts to make the resumption of schools, colleges, etc., possible. It is worth noting that many nations did not shut down schools at all, Taiwan and Sweden being prime examples. E-learning has been a big part of these efforts but it has been realised that it cannot act as a true replacement to physical learning, given equality of access issues in poorer nations. Changes will naturally be required but governments that shut down educational institutions are now treating their reopening as a priority. But is it safe?

Well, science does not have an exact answer here. The WHO itself has acknowledged that cases involving children are reported less often and that they are often shown to have milder symptoms. At the same time, the organisation has also stated that the role of children in the transmission is not entirely understood. Some early reports have shown that infection rates among teenagers is higher than younger children. Even if that were to not be the case, educational institutes bring with them the opportunity for a greater number of contact points for any potential outbreak to spread rapidly. And much like WHO, other health bodies across the world are also unsure of the scale of the risk and the exact level of precautions required. Even the simple question of whether students and teachers must wear masks at all times is not an obvious answer.

So if the science isn't conclusive in the matter, why are world governments rushing to resume activities in a sector that may become a source for new infection hotspots? Recent comments made by the chief medical officers of the UK regarding school openings reveal the standpoint of governments. The advisors stated that missing school puts kids at far greater risk than catching COVID-19. They pointed towards data that showed that the so-called 'lockdown generation' would pay for continuing disruptions in their cycle of education and training with reduced opportunities, increased inequalities and an upsurge in adverse physical and mental conditions. Thus, as Boris Johnson's earlier statements confirmed in corroboration, to the UK Government, the benefits of reopening educational institutes outdo the unclear downsides of doing likewise.

Health experts generally are not quite so convinced of such a calculation that is largely based on estimation. Countries that kept schools open during the pandemic did not end up doing a good job of keeping usable data on such matters, meaning that those recommending 'wait and watch' as a strategy simply do not have much to go on to draw any more conclusions. Most are recommending a more nuanced approach that deals with regional specifics. In areas with higher infection rates in the community, it might be commonsensical to not send your child to school whereas in places with a managed rate of infection, it might be safer to take the risk. Ultimately, most agree that leaving such precautions to the discretion of schools is simply irresponsible and that governments worldwide must take an active role in what is certain to be a significant experiment in balancing the risks posed by the pandemic now to the damages it may cause in the future. In India, the Centre has not fixed a date for reopening schools but several states are already considering the reopening of their education institutes in the coming months. It is grim but also true to note that a delay of a few months will allow the states to have a clearer picture of the risks involved as they will have many examples to study shortly.

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