World Health Organization says schools should only be reopened in the context of low community transmission rates

Children in a classroom.
Children in a classroom.
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) did not mince words yesterday during its bi-weekly media briefing, stating that reopening schools in any country is only safe in the context of low community transmissions of Covid-19.

The argument over the reopening of schools has been ongoing over the past few months as countries around the globe have eased lockdown restrictions. Subsequently, several studies have come out both in support and against the reopening of schools. Some South African studies have supported the reopening of schools.

SA is well on its way to the modelled peak of the pandemic, sitting at 287 796 infections as of 14 July. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases of South Africa (NICD) reported 11 555 new cases yesterday.

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

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, started off by stating their already existing guidelines for how schools should reopen. The considerations she detailed include “the transmission that is happening in the local areas or catchment area of the school, the type of school structure it has, the ability of the school to be able to implement measures of social distancing”.

Citing studies that children tend to be affected by a mild case of the disease, she noted that being less affected does not mean children don’t become infected. In most countries, she explained, children account for 1-3% of reported cases – generally less than 5%.

A distinction that still needs to be made is what age range we use to classify children being children in the conversation of Covid-19. “We need to break down what ‘children’ mean. The youngest children under 10 years old versus children over 10 years old,” she continued.

The studies at hand indicate that children over 10 years of age have a similar case of the disease to young adults, she added.

Executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme Dr Michael Ryan continued the narrative, saying if there’s still high community transmission then children will be exposed to the virus which is still a cause for concern as the long-term effects of the virus on children are still unknown.

“The problem we have in some countries right now is that it is very difficult to determine the safety of any environment because there is just so much transmission going on that all potential environments in which people mix are essentially problematic,” he said.

The consensus on how schools should go about reopening is very clear, he said. “Yes, there is an issue around how much and to what extent children participate in transmission. There are real issues around how schools can be reopened safely, but the best and safest way to reopen is in the context of low community transmission that has been effectively suppressed by a broad-based comprehensive strategy.”

The organisation also vocalised fears that the issue of schools reopening is being politicised in some countries, which they advise against. “If we suppress the virus then our schools can open safely,” Dr Ryan reiterated.

Watch the full video here: 

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