A young boy navigates online learning resources provided by his school in the village of Marsden, northern England, on March 23 2020. Picture: AFP/OLI SCARFF
A young boy navigates online learning resources provided by his school in the village of Marsden, northern England, on March 23 2020. Picture: AFP/OLI SCARFF

Singapore/Sydney As the coronavirus has made its way around the world, more than 160 countries have closed schools. Nearly 90% of the world’s student population is now out of class.

In Singapore, Australia, Sweden and Taiwan — and a few states in the US — school is still in.

That policy decision is becoming harder to justify by the day. Singapore recently reported a pair of coronavirus clusters linked to government-sponsored preschools. Australian teachers are considering a strike. Normally strict attendance rules have been relaxed, with some leaders encouraging parents to keep their children home as part of wider virus containment efforts, even if the schools are open.

In defence of keeping schools open, officials in the few holdouts say they can contain the outbreak without taking a radical action that, they fear, could do more harm than good. They cite early medical research that children are not as affected by the virus and concern about the stresses of having children at home for working parents already facing deep economic uncertainty.

After Singapore’s recent school-based outbreaks, the city-state agreed to move to a four-day school week, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared to rule out a nationwide shutdown.

“I think we should look at schools as individual schools rather than one whole system,” he said. “We confine and we rub out that cluster, but it does not mean that I must shut the whole system down.”

Healthcare shortage

Australia banned most public gathering places this week, shutting bars, cinemas, shopping malls and gyms, and calling a halt to weddings and even funerals.

But closing educational facilities may not have the same effect on containment, the country’s deputy chief medical officer said, and may in fact worsen the strain on the healthcare system as the government estimates that 30% of essential health workers will have to stay home to supervise their children.

“We know that without closing schools the burden on the health care workforce already exists,” said Rochelle Wynne, professor of nursing for Western Sydney local health district. “There’s going to be a massive shortage — over 10,000 critical-care nurses are needed to be redeployed from other areas to meet the demand. And that’s just critical care beds alone.”

Some schools are now worrying about a shortage of cleaning supplies and toilet paper, and teachers are worried that students, parents or their coworkers may be carriers — or that they themselves could unknowingly expose others.

“We were all quite anxious about it. Teachers were wearing gloves and we were washing our hands constantly,” said Lea Lockwood, a parent and English teacher in Bendigo, a regional town in south east Australia. “Everything should be shutting down.”

Parents are encouraged to keep children at home where possible, but the teachers’ union is pushing Prime Minister Scott Morrison for definitive closures sooner, rather than later.

Sweden has also kept its schools open in part to ease the burden on parents who work in essential jobs, including healthcare. Elsewhere in Europe, governments have closed schools but are trying to keep some facilities running for the children of healthcare workers.

Conflicting evidence

Sweden’s health authority also assessed the chance that healthy children would transmit the disease as “very small”. Singapore has relied on the same logic to keep its schools open. The city-state’s education minister, Ong Ye Kung, pointed to advice by Dale Fisher, a professor and chair of the World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

“A lot of the swabs that we have taken from family clusters have shown that while the parents might have had the disease and had symptoms, the children are completely well, even though they tested positive,” Fisher said in an article in the national paper, The Straits Times.

Other research suggests that children are in no way immune to serious symptoms and complications. One pre-publication study of more than 2,000 paediatric patients with the coronavirus in China reported that the virus was generally less severe in young people, but “young children, particularly infants, are vulnerable”.

And even if not very sick themselves, infected children could still be contagious. A study of 36 paediatric cases in China published this week found that half of the infected children showed no obvious signs of the disease, making them “covert” spreaders of the pathogen.

Research is not yet conclusive on whether infected children are contagious, and if so, how contagious they are.

If this were a flu outbreak, said Benjamin Cowling, head of the epidemiology division at Hong Kong University, “closing schools would have a big effect on transmission, because children are more susceptible to infection and more contagious when infected. But for Covid-19, the potential effect is not so clear.”

Controversial decisions

The decision to close schools is often as controversial as the decision to keep them open. In Washington State, where the coronavirus first took hold in the US, governor Jay Inslee extended two-week local closures to a six-week statewide shutdown.

As much as they’re worried about the virus spreading in one of the country’s biggest metropolitan areas, parents are divided, said Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools. “Some say ‘how dare you close schools’ and some are saying ‘how dare you not close schools’,” he said.

Only a handful of US states had not mandated school closures as of Thursday and the majority of students nationwide are staying at home.

The biggest obstacle to closing schools is a question of equity, said Jason Tan, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s National Institute of Education in Singapore. Not everyone has a laptop or a tablet to support online learning, and remote instruction is a challenge for younger children regardless. Low-income families could miss out on free school meals.

Globally, experts predict incidents of child abuse will rise with the drop in oversight and services that, in part, schools provide.

In New York City, where about 75% of public school students are classified as low-income and one in 10 are homeless, the city’s department of education is still providing three free meals daily for all children. About 850,000 meals are served to students each school day, and of these, over 700,000 meals are provided at no charge to the students.

The federal economic stimulus package that US President Donald Trump is expected to sign also addresses some of the societal gaps created by school shutdowns. Parents who stay home or quit their jobs because they no longer have adequate daily childcare will be eligible for unemployment benefits and up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave at 67% of an individual’s normal pay.

Taiwan’s success

While public anxiety is rising in Singapore and Australia over a surge in infections, Taiwan has kept schools open without seeing a spike in virus cases.

The island of 24-million reported its first case of coronavirus in January. The Taiwanese government was among the first to cut off flights from Wuhan, promptly followed by a ban on travel to and from the rest of the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau.

At the time, Taiwan extended its school break to late February. Mask rationing and distribution, strict testing and up to $33,000 fines for breaching quarantine have resulted in just 267 infections as of Friday.

Schools have remained open without interruption since students returned on February 25. But heightened measures have been in place. Schools with more than 1,000 students are required to have at least 10 entrance lanes for temperature checks, and dividers are placed on students’ desks to separate them.

“It’s really a tough decision to make. There are public health concerns about transmission because so many people gather in schools,” said Tan, the Nanyang professor. “But it’s not a straightforward thing to do.”

Bloomberg