The pros of safe reopening outweigh the cons if the public health measures are optimally maintained, as the reopening would have addressed the challenges of remote learning as well as the mental health-related issues due to the closure of schools.
Before the Ministry of Education announced the phased reopening of physical classes this month, COVID Weekly reached out to the Executive Director of The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), Dr Joy St John, to get some guidance on the safe reopening of schools. Below is CARPHA’s response.
CW: Over the last few weeks, there has been extensive discussions on the return to school. We are hearing teachers and parents express concerns about doing so in an environment with community spread, unknown variants, and MIS-C. From a public health perspective, what are the main risks associated with such a resumption, and do the pros outweigh the cons?
CARPHA: The CARPHA has updated the guidance for prevention strategies that publicly supported primary and secondary school administrators can use to help protect students, teachers, and staff, and slow the spread of COVID-19. If prevention strategies are strictly adhered to, these schools have the best likelihood of safely opening for in-person instruction and remaining open.
This can be achieved through an operational strategy for safe delivery of in-person instruction in the primary and secondary schools through the integration of a package of prevention and control components:
1. Consistent implementation of layered prevention strategies to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools.
2. Consideration of indicators of community transmission to reflect levels of community risk.
3. Phased prevention strategies based on levels of community transmission.
The following public health efforts provide additional layers of COVID-19 protection in schools:
• Testing to identify individuals with a SARS-CoV-2 infection to limit transmission and outbreaks.
• Full vaccination for teachers and staff should be a priority before reopening. The School authorities considering reopening must be ready to live up to the challenges of maintaining and sustaining adequate safe environment in line with recommendations of the Public health authorities.
The pros of safe reopening outweigh the cons if the public health measures are optimally maintained, as the reopening would have addressed the challenges of remote learning as well as the mental health-related issues due to the closure of schools for the children as well as loss of employment for staff and teachers.
School closures have clear negative impacts on child health, education and development, family income, and the overall economy.
Other benefits of safe reopening include:
• Allowing students to complete their studies and continue to the next level.
• Essential services, access to nutrition, child welfare, such as preventing violence against children.
• Social and psychological well-being.
• Access to reliable information on how to keep themselves and others safe.
• Reducing the risk of non-return to school.
• Benefit to society, such as allowing parents to work.
The main risk will remain the spread of COVID-19 infection in schools among the children, staff, and teachers if there is failure to adequately adhere to public health guidelines and maintain standard, safe and conducive environment for in-person school learning.
CW: What are the recommendations for a safe reopening of schools?
CARPHA: The CARPHA recommendations include the following.
• Making full vaccination for teachers and staff a priority before reopening.
• Monitoring of the teachers, staff, and children including temperature checks.
• Continued precautionary measure of social distancing of at least 2 meters or 6 feet.
• Wearing of face mask.
• Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette —provide facilities and opportunities for hand washing.
• Cleaning and maintaining of healthy facilities.
• Testing and contact tracing—have clear protocols for detecting illness and reporting to Ministry.
• Quarantine and isolation if a suspected case is detected during school hours.
• Vaccination of children whenever the research is concluded on the use of COVID -19 vaccination in children.
CW: Moderna has begun a COVID-19 vaccine trial in infants and young children. Do you think that would be the long-term solution for a safe environment for a full-scale face-to-face resumption of schools?
• Vaccination remains one of the effective ways we can control the outbreak of communicable diseases including COVID-19.
• Vaccination must be taken together with other general and specific precautionary measures since we do not have adequate or full data on the vaccine preventing transmission of the COVID-19 infection.