Coronavirus: Is closing schools an effective measure to prevent an outbreak? History has some answers


Updated on 17 March 2020

In a bid to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus that is crippling the globe, President Ramaphosa announced this week that schools will be closed from Wednesday, 18 March 2020, two days before school holidays were due to start this week.

He added that they'll stay closed until after the Easter weekend (10 - 13 April), provided the virus is under control by then.

Must read: Coronavirus | Parents respond as Ramaphosa closes schools

According to UNESCO's latest report, over 100 countries have closed schools nationwide, including Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Italy, Iran and Vietnam, or have closed some schools. 

Closing schools to prevent an outbreak is one example of a measure used to keep a population healthy that is known as 'social distancing'.

Steps include cancelling sports events, graduation ceremonies and staff meetings.

The idea of mass school closures to stop the spread of disease is unprecedented in South Africa, and we'll be learning from the past experiences of other countries as we face the repercussions of prolonged school closures.

Some recent examples of mass school closures include: 

Ebola closures 

Schools in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were closed for as long as nine months during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As many as five million children were unable to attend school during this time. 

When children did return, safety measures were implemented, which included taking children’s temperatures when they arrived at school and making them wash their hands before entering the classroom. 

A unfortunate side effect of the long closures was that only 85% of children had returned to schools a month after they opened, and the majority of these absent children were girls. 

Impact on the economy

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently against school closures, as research shows that closures lasting four weeks could cut 3% from the UK’s GDP, costing the economy billions of pounds.

Innovations in education

When kids can't come to school, governments, and parents, must look for new ideas and new ways to educate the nation. More online schools will spring up and homeschooling might become more common.

Distance learning

Another takeaway from the 2014 Ebola crisis is the idea to use radio to provide a link to education for kids kept at home. 

Teachers in Sierra Leone worked with UNICEF to offer pupils an option to learn over the airwaves, with 41 radio stations across the country transmitting lessons on maths, English, health education and more.

Afterwards, it was agreed that this was a poor substitute, but by providing a link to schooling it kept children positive until schools reopened. 

Long term impact on families

Many of these measures have proven effective in preventing the spread of flu-like viruses in the past, but not without causing some other issues. 

Closing schools for any period of time tends to have a negative impact on children, as they fall behind on the curriculum, but more so on disadvantaged and vulnerable students, who rely on school for a meal or a safe place to be during the day.

Parents who cannot take time off of work to watch younger kids at home may also struggle to find alternate childcare, and those who are forced to take time off may lose income, or risk their jobs.

In the case of closures due to an infectious diseases like Covid-19, the elderly are more at risk when schools close, as they are often a family's fallback childcare plan. 

Must see: Coronavirus: As schools close, are the kids a risk to their grandparents?

Find out more about your rights as a working parent here:

Working parents, need time off work during the coronavirus pandemic? Here are your rights

"As an employee in South Africa, The Basic Conditions of Employment Act protects your right to take sick leave. This means that if you get a medical certificate confirming the diagnosis stating that you have to be in isolation, you will be entitled to take sick leave," says Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director.

Coronavirus | I'm a nanny and I can't go to work. Can I get fired?

Once your annual leave is used up, the principle of 'no work no pay' will come into play.

Other options?

Staggered starts

In some cases, schools only partly close, or manage start and end times to minimise contact between classes and grades. 

Getting outside

Another way to keep kids learning, but apart, is to re-arrange seating to ensure children sit 1.8m apart in classrooms, or to teach them outdoors.

Sanitising schools 

In the US over 300 schools shut for a day so they could be sanitised after suspected exposure, but this does not prevent returning pupils who are unknowingly carrying the virus from spreading it to others.

Stay up to date with the latest coronavirus news here

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