Covid-19: Vaccinating teachers in next roll-out phase will help schools fully re-open - expert

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  • SA schools will reopen for in-person learning from July
  • As children return to their routines, teacher unions have called for school staff to be prioritised for vaccination
  • A local expert, however, says that Covid infection among teachers is mostly not acquired from schools

As primary schools are set to return to normal in-person learning, teacher unions in South Africa have called for school staff to be prioritised for vaccination.

South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said they have been calling for teachers to be vaccinated since April, according to a News24 report

“Teachers are frontline workers and must be on the priority list. We continue to advocate for their vaccination because education is critical [and is being] disrupted by the pandemic,” Maluleke said.

Learners from grades R to 7 will return to class under the traditional timetable from 26 July, although Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga suspended a number of contact sports, according to News24

The country’s national rollout plan includes the prioritisation of essential workers, including teachers and other school staff members, under Phase 2 of the programme. Reporting by Business Insider SA notes that hundreds of thousands of teachers are due to receive the Johnson & Johnson jab, which could happen within weeks.

This is, however, dependent on an announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a cross-contamination at a plant in Baltimore was reported. Unfortunately, this affects J&J vaccines due for and already in South Africa at Aspen’s Gqeberha plant. 

A Department of Health department spokesperson, Foster Mohale, told Health24 that “educators [and school staff] are part of Phase 2, but the exact starting dates will be announced once we get all our ducks in a row”.

As the debate develops over whether there should be a push to put teachers on the priority list, Professor Jeremy Nel, Head of Division of Infectious Diseases, Helen Joseph Hospital, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), believes there is no need for school staff to be moved up the line of priorities, based on what the current evidence indicates, but that they should be part of the next stage of the Phase 2 rollout.

Children silent spreaders

Although available evidence suggests children are largely spared the worst health effects of Covid-19 infection, they can still be silent spreaders of the virus. At this point, younger children will not be receiving the jab anytime soon.

Needless to say, teachers spend long hours indoors with children, putting them at risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to others, including their loved ones. 

In an article published in The Conversation, paediatricians and vaccine experts  from Australia wrote that children’s well-being and learning should be among the top priorities in any disease outbreak. 

Over and above strategies to reduce the risk of Covid transmission in schools during outbreaks, including enhanced physical distancing; good ventilation in classrooms; focusing on hand hygiene; and wearing of face masks by learners and school staff, they also believe that urgently vaccinating all school staff should be considered.

“Vaccinating all school staff would reassure those who have concerns about being at work in a school environment during a lockdown, and potentially lower the risk of spread in schools even further. This would increase the confidence in schools remaining open,” they wrote.

Covid mostly not acquired from schools

Nel told Health24 that current evidence suggests that even though children can transmit the virus, children and schools are not major drivers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

“The available evidence to date suggests that while teachers, like most South Africans, did contract plenty of Covid-19 in the last year, it doesn’t appear that much of this was acquired from schools,” he said.

In fact, a recent analysis showed that there didn’t appear to be any link between schools re-opening and teachers dying from Covid infection, added Nel. 

Instead, infection rates in schools are simply mirroring the prevalence of cases in the surrounding community and are, therefore, not a place of greater transmission than the community when prevention measures are put in place.

Data from different countries

In a paper published in October 2020, Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya looked at different regions within Spain and wrote that the country’s second wave of Covid cases started before the school year began in September, and that cases in one region dropped three weeks after schools reopened. 

Data from the Public Health Agency of Sweden indicated that 19 per 100 000 school teachers in the country received intensive care for Covid-19 up until June 2020.

Figures from New York also pointed out that students and teachers don’t appear to be catching Covid from each other, The Washington Post reported in November 2020.

An article published in Nature also referred to data gathered worldwide that increasingly suggest that schools are not hotspots for Covid infections.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that staff-to-staff transmission is more common than transmission from students to staff, staff to student, or student to student.

'Teachers next' justified

“We know that the bulk of the Covid deaths in every country in the world are seen in the elderly and those with comorbidities, and so clearly these groups should be prioritised, ahead of other groups,” said Nel. 

“However, once this is complete, the prioritisation of teachers in the next stages of rollout (as ‘essential workers’) is justified to help facilitate the full reopening of schools,” he added. 

*For more Covid-19 research, science, and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | Do children and teens need to be vaccinated to get the Covid-19 pandemic under control?

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