India has seen a lot of suffering in the last year and a half. But are we setting ourselves up for another prolonged and needless suffering well after Covid-19 recedes? Is school closure a necessary step to control the spread of Covid-19? What are the costs of school closures? Which sections of society face these costs the most? Have other countries opened schools amidst the pandemic? It is high time to ask and answer these questions.

The issue of school reopening has been portrayed as a “life versus education” issue – that schools are closed to “keep children safe until they can be vaccinated”. This is a flawed perspective on several counts. First, studies have established that the risk of severe Covid-19 is very small in children and much smaller than other routine risks.

Recent studies in the United Kingdom examined all deaths (due to any cause) among school children and noted that the risk of severe illness or death from SARS-Cov-2 in children is extremely low and those at higher risk are also those who are also at higher risk from any winter virus or other illness, ie, children with “multiple health conditions and complex disabilities”.

To understand how low the risk is, consider this: as per data from the United States, those under age 25 years are at one-tenth the mortality risk from Covid-19, compared to traffic accidents. But no one closes schools because children are at risk from traffic accidents.

The “life versus education” perspective also overlooks the costs of school closures, as highlighted by multiple studies. A study in The Netherlands, which has the world’s highest rate of broadband access, examined the effect of relatively short school closures on primary school performance and concluded that students made little or no progress while learning from home.

Given India’s size and diversity, decisions regarding school opening should be taken at local levels. Photo credit: Narinder Nanu / AFP

It is obvious that losses will be even larger in a country like India that has weaker infrastructure and longer school closures. A January 2021 study by Azim Premji University covering approximately 16,000 students across Class 2 to Class 6 across five states concluded that on average, 92% had lost at least one specific language ability and 82% had lost at least one specific mathematical ability.

Jean Dreze, an economist and social scientist, recently said on NDTV that primary school children he met in a Jharkhand village could not recognise vernacular letters or construct words. School closure has not only resulted in academic losses, but also developmental delays, nutritional deficiency, eyesight problems and mental health problems.

The number of dropouts has also spiked. Andhra Pradesh has estimated over 60,000 dropouts, and Class 1 enrollment in Karnataka was a mere 25% of the expected as of mid-July. If these children fall further into poverty, how will they access healthcare? How will it affect their lifespan and future generations?

Schools abroad

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization maintains a website showing how long schools have been closed in various countries since the start of the pandemic. This shows that various European nations and US states have kept their schools open. Scientific literature now abounds with studies in various parts of the world showing that schools contribute very little to Covid spread.

For example, a US-wide study conducted between Mar 2020 and Dec 2020 concluded “no increase in Covid-19 hospitalisation rates associated with in-person education”. A Sweden-wide study concluded that schoolteachers faced less risk compared to other professions! Another US-wide scientific study of more than 57,000 child-care providers, published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “no association was found between exposure to child care and Covid-19”.

Schools that can implement hybrid models combining physical and virtual should do so, so that parents who prefer online education can continue online. Photo credit: Noah Seelam / AFP

But is it fair to compare developed countries with India? Rather than a comparison, it is a question of how we can adapt and implement school opening mechanisms. There is no scientific basis for keeping schools closed for as long as we have. Given India’s size and diversity, decisions regarding school opening should be taken at local levels with the assessment of community transmission levels and ground-level engagement with stakeholders, based on broad, centralised guidance around safety protocols. Schools that can implement hybrid models combining physical and virtual should do so, so that parents who prefer online education can continue online.

While we will need to be vigilant about any outbreaks due to current or newer variants, decisions should be made on the basis of available data and past experience that show that risks of opening schools are low. An additional aspect of safety in the context of India is the fact that over two-thirds of our population has already been exposed to the virus, including a majority of children in the six years to 17years age group. The exposure percentage is much higher (75%-80%) in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Ahmedabad. This is significant since known science prior to the pandemic as well as recent studies indicate that naturally acquired immunity is long-lasting. This should further lessen our fears of a new outbreak on school reopening.

Children’s vaccines

India’s Health Minister recently announced that children could be vaccinated in August, and the director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr Randeep Guleria, stated that data from children’s vaccine trials will be available in September. This has led to an argument that schools should remain closed until children are vaccinated.

However, while we know that children are at low risk from severe Covid-19, we do not know the long-term effects of the current vaccines on our children.

Adult vaccination itself has not been a smooth process in India, and the country may not meet its goal of fully vaccinating its adult population by December. There is, therefore, no certainty as to when safe vaccines for children will be available and rolled out. Schools have already been closed for almost one and a half years, and so we must instead offer vaccination to school staff on priority, and schools should open now.

Prioritising future

Media reports indicate that the Central government has consciously decided not to offer a view on school reopening. Instead, the government must encourage experts, including the Indian Council of Medical Research, to explain the science and level of risk, and constitute a task force to provide guidelines to states on how to mitigate this risk, leaving room for customisation to local conditions.

One virologist’s prediction during the second wave led to widespread fear that a potential third wave would affect children disproportionately. We now know that this fear was unfounded, but it has furthered the damage to children’s education and future.

Given the extreme costs of school closure and the low risks of reopening them, we can no longer wait to give children their life back. The ICMR has acknowledged that primary schools are at the lowest risk and should be prioritised before older age groups. It is high time that policymakers put aside political divides and start applying scientific learnings to save our children – our future.

Bhaskaran Raman is a professor at the Department of CSE, IIT Bombay and a parent of two school-age children. Tanya Aggarwal is a Delhi-based lawyer and parent of one school-age child.