New study supports kids returning to school, citing dangers of staying home alone

Learners in a classroom.
Learners in a classroom.
Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Getty Images

A study by academics from Stellenbosch University’s economics department suggests that reopening schools is in the best interest of children. The study outlines, amongst other things, how South African children under 19 years of age are more likely to die of unrelated causes than of Covid-19 this year.

The study, Counting the Cost – COVID-19, Children and Schooling, was spearheaded by Professor Servaas van der Berg and Dr Nic Spaull, who say children’s education, welfare and mental health have been severely compromised by the ongoing school closures and that they are not in the best interests of children.

Speaking to DRUM, Dr Spaull says the main aim of the study was to find out the unintended consequences of government’s lockdown regulations regarding nationwide school closures. “We were trying to answer for ourselves: ‘What is in the best interests of the child?’” he says.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced yesterday that the country is still in the early phases of the viral pandemic. But the study warns against closing schools again when the country reaches its peak in infections, suggesting that should schools close again later in the year, children will have lost between 14% and 33% of the regular academic year.

Van der Berg and Spaull’s paper, which supports the reopening of schools, looks at the overwhelming number of children who have been left at home unattended since the country resumed more economic activities under lockdown level 3. It also looks at children’s education and mental health, which have been compromised during lockdown, and their relatively low mortality risk from Covid-19.

They write that “up to 1 million children aged 0-6 years . . . are left ‘home alone’ because the economy has re-opened while crèches and ECD centres have remained closed”. This is because their sole adult caregiver is also the only working adult in the household, they found.

The effect the lockdown has on the mental health of children has been documented before. A study in China’s Hubei province found that 20% of children during lockdown in China suffered depression and anxiety, UPI reported.

The Stellenbosch paper cites the relatively low mortality risk in children from the virus this year.  Using projections of Covid-19 deaths amounting to 48 000, the study estimates the mortality risk posed by children and teachers.

Van der Berg and Spaull calculated that the risk of dying from Covid-19 this year for a South African child aged 0-19 years is around 1 in 76 876. In comparison, the age group’s regular annual mortality risk is 1 in 1 000 based on 2016 mortality figures. “We argue that the relatively low mortality risk from Covid-19 needs to be contrasted to the significant additional mortality risk from acute malnutrition and associated mortality in children (especially pneumonia, diarrhoea and HIV/Aids) arising from the lockdown,” they said in a statement.

Dr Spaull says he hopes the findings change the narrative and shows people the current policies are not the only available options. “We need to weigh up the costs and benefits to children rather than just assume that doing absolutely everything to limit the spread of Covid-19 is always the right choice. Often those choices (lockdowns and school closures) can cause more damage to children,” he says.

However, since Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners returned to schools on 8 June there have been growing reports of schools having to temporarily close because of Covid-19 cases or even suspected cases. Unions have reacted with outrage, reports Daily Maverick. The Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) released a statement on 15 June stating over 2 000 students and teachers have tested positive for the coronavirus since they returned to schools.