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Not risky? How schools closure flattened children’s future, not Covid curve

By Bhaskaran Raman*
“Flatten the curve” so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, was the clarion call in March 2020, based on which all schools in India were shut. Does school closure flatten the Covid curve? There was weak evidence in Mar 2020, and schools were shut along with everything else in an atmosphere of panic. Eighteen months later there is now plenty of evidence that school closure does indeed flatten, not the Covid curve, but children’s futures.
Tens of thousands of schools have been open in over 170 countries, many even at the peak of the Covid curve. But reports of Covid outbreaks in schools are few and far between. Let us look rationally at a few such recent reports from India as well as abroad, to gauge the level of concern warranted.
The state of Punjab opened schools from August 2. It was reported that “infection” was high among children in Punjab following school reopening. Tamil Nadu opened schools for classes 9-12 on September 1. By mid-September, a total of 117 paediatric cases were reported in that State. Toward the end of August, a report of a Covid outbreak in California, USA, made waves in the media.

Does school closure help reduce hospitalization?

To a layperson, such reports paint a picture that schools are dangerous places, hospitals may crumble if schools are opened. Is this picture accurate, or is it a gross exaggeration? It is important to note that none of the media reports say anything about the severity of the “cases”. Have there been any severe cases? Any hospitalizations?
None report on this. Taking “no news” as “good news”, perhaps we can conclude that there have been no severe cases or hospitalizations. Indeed the original CDC report of the California outbreak says “No persons infected in this outbreak were hospitalized”.
Let us pause for a moment and let that sink in.
Across the thousands of schools opened so far, very few reports of outbreaks, and even there, no reported hospitalization!
In other words, there was no curve to flatten through school closure.
Dozens of methodical studies have indeed shown that schools do not increase Covid hospitalization or even Covid spread. As early as June 2020, a comparison of Sweden (schools open) vs Finland (schools closed) showed no statistical difference in paediatric cases, and no increased risk to teachers compared to other professions. The US CDC’s own report in Jan 2021 cites a study which found “no increase in Covid-19 hospitalization rates associated with in-person education”.

Case counting serves no useful purpose

Thus even the rare reports of supposed Covid spread in schools report only “cases”. Does this serve any purpose? What exactly does an “infection” or a “case” mean in a child? It would do good to remind ourselves what the abbreviation SARS-Cov-2 stands for. The first “S” stands for “severe” and the “A” stands for “acute”. “Cases”, or PCR positive results, can happen among children too. But the risk of severe outcomes is very rare.
All schools must open now; continued closure is morally and scientifically unjustifiable
The human body has hundreds of different kinds of viruses: if we test for them, we will find them, but there is no clinical relevance since the body is able to fight off the bad ones. For most children, SARS-Cov-2 is just one other such virus with severe outcomes being very rare.
Therefore counting “cases”, especially in children, serves only the negative purpose of increasing anxiety.

The zeal for zero-risk

Paediatric “case” reporting arises from a misplaced zeal for zero-risk and zero-Covid, a scientific impossibility. A clear fact which has been lost amidst muddled thinking in the last 18 months is the age-differential risk of Covid. While Covid is deadly for old/comorbid people, it is literally a 1000 times less risk for children.
Despite this, surely every parent would say “my child should not face any risk, however small”. This is natural and emotional, but irrational on three counts.
  • First, zero risk is an impossibility. A recent UK study concluded that children under 10 are 20 times more likely to die of accidental injury, compared to Covid-19. Surely, we wouldn’t shut schools or kids’ play to avoid accidents.
  • Second, staying at home away from schools has not protected children from exposure to Covid-19. A recent sero-survey conducted by PGIMER showed that 71% of children were already exposed and had antibodies. What has protected these children from any severe outcome is their own natural immune system (for which we should be thankful), not school closure.
  • Third, school closure increases health risk for children: causing great psychological harm, even suicides, alongside increasing manifold other severe problems like child labour, child marriage, malnutrition, etc.
Recently it was reported that the Supreme Court had said that it would hold the State of Kerala accountable “if even one case is reported” during conduct of class-11 exams. Is this level of containment humanly possible? That too against a respiratory virus spreading through airborne aerosols? When the harshest of military enforced lockdowns have not contained the virus in much more sparsely populated countries like Australia? Instead of seeking the impossible, should we not be celebrating the fact that the virus has spared children and young people from severe outcomes?

Absurdities abound

So why did we shut schools? The saying goes: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. We shut schools to keep children safe. Or to keep parents safe. Or to keep grandparents safe. Or to keep society safe from the Covid curve. All well intentioned perhaps, but evidence is mounting that none of these are remotely true.
Were children not exposed to Covid-19? No, they were exposed (but safe) despite school closure. Were parents or grandparents safe due to school closure? We have the recent tall second wave to answer that.
Self-evident contradictions that any lay person can see are also mounting: how can schools be viewed as super-spreaders when everything else including malls, theaters, markets, banks, post-offices, public buses, shared auto-rickshaws, etc are open? When currently the Covid curve is on a downward trend, what is there to flatten via school closure anyway, except childrens’ futures?

Now means now

If truth and scientific evidence matter, if our children's futures matter, all schools in India must open. We must go back in time 18 months to open them. Since we don’t have a time machine, we must open all schools now. Possible third wave or fourth wave have no role in this.
Covid-19 vaccines for kids are unnecessary and have no role in this. It is appalling that several States have still not opened primary schools. Our children should be made to wait no longer.
---
 *Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. Views are personal.

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