Back to School Post Covid: Facts vs Fears

As students geared up to return to school in 2021, plans were squashed as Malaysia was hit with the third wave of Covid cases. As the number of cases rose past 4000, the Ministry of Education (MOE) sent a directive for virtual learning to continue in all schools nationwide.

Unfortunately, not all children nor schools have adapted to this new norm. Only last year, MOE’s survey found that at least 37% of children did not possess any digital device, and only 15% of students had personal computers. And that’s just the students. Schools that were ill-equipped or couldn’t provide the necessary support to their teachers meant that students had to take a break from learning.

As a result, some students start to lose interest in schooling and learning. Even those who are privileged enough to attend class daily, especially the younger ones, struggle to focus when it comes to e-learning. When they see their children regressing, it’s no wonder why some parents are eager to send their children back to school to resume their education. Still, there are others who remain fearful and would rather keep their children home instead. That is why we’re going to tackle the topic of facts vs fears regarding going back to school – that is, if it happens any time soon.  

Are children at a lower risk?

For now, there is an estimated 8.5% of reported covid cases for children under the age of 18 years. There have also been relatively few deaths compared to other age groups, and those who have contracted the virus, rarely show severe symptoms. Only those with pre-existing medical conditions have a higher risk factor and should be extra careful. Regardless of whether they are high risk or not, all children should learn basic precautions such as hand hygiene and maintaining distancing if they physically return to school. Therefore in a sense, we can assume that children are at a lower risk, although studies are still being carried out to assess the risk of infection in children.

What medical conditions should I be worried about? 

Although children are less likely to develop a severe reaction or die than adults, it doesn’t mean it is okay to take them out to crowded places unnecessarily. Infants under the age of 1 and those with certain underlying medical conditions remain at risk of a severe reaction. Children with genetic, neurologic, metabolic disorders, or congenital heart disease might be at increased risk. Likewise, obese, diabetic, asthmatic children with chronic lung disease, sickle cell disease, or immunosuppression also share the same risks. Like adults, children with severe reaction may develop a whole host of health issues like respiratory failure, myocarditis, shock, multi-organ system failure and in some cases, even multi-system inflammatory syndrome, to name a few.

Recognising the symptoms in children

The average incubation period for children is the same as adults which about six days but it can take anywhere from 2-14 for symptoms to show. Despite this, about 16% – 45% of children remain asymptomatic even after they are found to be infected (RT-PCR positive).

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle pains
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Nasal congestion or running nose
  • Sudden loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea or vomiting and poor appetite

Despite the long list, children rarely get severely ill, and the common Covid symptoms are cough and/or fever. But because all these symptoms are similar to influenza, respiratory infections or allergic rhinitis, it is tricky to distinguish between covid and common illness. Unless a close contact has recently been found to be positive, there’s no way of telling if it is Covid or not without actually doing a nasal swab.

Closing schools will control transmission

Although there isn’t enough evidence to suggest this, it is always good to play it safe. The decision to close or reopen schools is made after taking into account all the risks involved while considering the educational well-being and health benefits of students, teachers, staff, and the community as a whole.

Of course, going back to school doesn’t mean going back to the way it was before. Currently, the government is staggering students’ return to school and prioritising those sitting for exams this year where strict SOPs are enforced to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Children who display flu/cold symptoms must stay at home and avoid going to school. Older teachers or those with underlying health conditions may have to consider teaching online, so they do not put themselves at a greater risk of infection. Students, teachers and staff should practice social distancing and adopt good hygiene at all times to reduce the chance of transmission.

Undeniably none of us can assume that the school (or any other area) is free of COVID-19, so it is every parent’s right to decide, whether or not to send their children to school. Yes, the decision is ultimately yours. Still, there is no denying that we still have to continue with our lives and our children need education and structure, albeit with the new norm.

Take-Home Message

The silver lining through all this is that we see the resiliency of the human spirit. Indeed we may be struggling, but we are still here. As long as everyone behaves responsibly and play their parts in keeping everyone safe, we can see this through.  

If you suspect any possible exposure or feel unwell, do cooperate with the health authorities and go for RT-PCR testing if it is required of you. Remember that this isn’t just about you, even if you do not show any significant symptoms because the next person who catches your virus may not be as lucky. #kitajagakita

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