School children walk past police during a protest. PIcture: REUTERS
School children walk past police during a protest. PIcture: REUTERS

While more than 90% of children remain at home under SA’s lockdown, Stellenbosch University economists Nic Spaull and Servaas van der Berg argue they should all return to school immediately.

In new research, Spaull and Van der Berg calculate that the risks of missed school, the lack of school meals, childhood anxiety and a lack of supervision far outweigh the risks of dying of Covid-19.

The pair conclude that the risk of death is “virtually nonexistent for children”. After looking at many studies, they say the risk of a teacher or child of dying from Covid-19 is far lower than the risk of a normal cause of death.

Spaull and Van der Berg also argue that trying to mitigate the negligible risk of severe Covid-19 with social distancing in overcrowded state schools is “futile”, and will instead just delay learning.

“The department of basic education should acknowledge that it is not feasible for most SA schools to practise social distancing within the classroom,” they say

Their new study also cites Cambridge professor David Spiegelhalter, who concluded that the risk to children in the UK, at the height of an epidemic that has killed 42,000 people in that country, is no higher than any other risks. “Healthy children and young adults have been exposed to an extremely small risk during the peak of the epidemic, which would normally be deemed an acceptable part of life,” he said.

Another critical reason for wanting to send children back to school is that one in four children in SA are malnourished. About 8-million children are typically given at least one meal per day at school.

Data from the Human Sciences Research Council suggests that childhood malnutrition has increased due to the lockdown. And malnutrition is a contributing factor in the three top killers of SA children: HIV, pneumonia and diarrhoea.

“Even though malnutrition is not often stated as the cause of death in SA, it often remains an important contributor. Child mortality audits show that almost a third of children who die are severely malnourished,” say Spaull and Van der Berg.

They point out that even before the lockdown, General Household Survey data showed that “at least 2.5-million children experienced hunger and lived below the food poverty line”. With more than 7.8-million known infections in the world, the evidence is clear that Covid-19 can be deadly for very old people, but those under the age of 65 have an extremely low risk of death.

Spaull and Van der Berg’s study shows that data from the health department during May showed that 81% of people who died from Covid-19 in SA were 50 years or older, while 58% were 60 years or older.

Data released by the department of health shows that SA had recorded three deaths among children younger than nine, which is equal to 0.2% of SA’s total 1,568 deaths (as at June 15). There have also been five deaths of children aged 10 to 19, equal to 0.3% of the total number of fatalities.

Spaull and Van der Berg’s numbers differ, however: they record that in the Western Cape alone, five children under the age of five have died.

More than a quarter of 2020 teaching days lost

While matrics and grade 7 pupils returned to school last week, many other grades are only due to return to school in July or August. This means children will have lost between 25% and 55% of teaching days.

There has been much anxiety about the opening of schools. The Congress of SA Students says it plans to shut down all schools since “we believe the department was not ready [for reopening]”.

This weekend, City Press reported a surge in new cases after the schools opened, which led to many schools being closed again, including 54 in Gauteng and 61 in the Western Cape. In that province, 98 teachers are reported to have tested positive for Covid-19.

Spaull and Van der Berg use data from Stats SA to calculate that many children in single-parent homes have no caregivers to watch them when their parent heads off to work. There are 974,000 children in SA under the age of six with only one parent.

“It is highly plausible that hundreds of thousands of these children would be left home alone in households without an adult caretaker if their employed caregiver was forced to return to work to earn an income and sustain her family,” they say.

While many parents returned to work when level 3 lockdown was implemented, crèches and early childhood development centres remain closed until mid-July.

Ensuring mental health

There are other, often ignored, effects of keeping children at home.

For one thing, there is the mental aspect: global studies on the mental impact of keeping children at home show a clear increase in anxiety and depression. Spaull and Van der Berg’s study says this could be worse in SA since many children don’t have toys, books or puzzles at home.

“After one month of school closures in Hubei province, nearly a quarter (23%) of children in grades 2-6 reported symptoms of depression,” they say.

Equally, studies suggest that incidents of child abuse often increase while parents, many of whom have lost jobs, are at home and in cases of severe economic distress.

The authors say that all children who aren’t severely ill ought to be back at school, since the risks of hunger, boredom and a lack of adult care at home are mounting.