Educational hubs or babysitters clubs
The Alert Level 3 announcement that schools would be opened was met with a collective sigh of relief from some lockdown-weary parents, and a collective groan of frustration by many understandably-miffed educators. Over 40,000 people have signed a petition to keep schools closed, just like other organisations and businesses that can’t physical distance. This move is more about getting the economy back on track than educating our children, and the evidence isn’t sufficient to take the risk.
Those who can stay home should, said the Prime Minister, but “essential” and now “safe” workers will be able to send their children to school. It won’t be school as we know it though; students will be grouped in bubbles and undertake their online learning at school, supervised by teachers. It will be distance learning in more than one respect: playgrounds there but tantalisingly out of bounds, friends close but kept apart. James Morris, Secondary Principals’ Council chair, said this would turn schools into “a de-facto daycare,” and as another educator pointed out, teachers to babysitters.
This move is more about getting the economy back on track than educating our children, and the evidence isn’t sufficient to take the risk.
There is a clear double-standard: businesses can’t open their doors if they are unable to implement physical distancing but schools must open their gates. This is why Rod Jackson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, recommended what he called Level 3.5, where businesses could open safely but schools remain closed. It is putting teachers and their families at risk in an inconsistent way to the rest of the workforce, not to mention the children.
The Government believes this is a low-risk strategy, but the evidence is not clear. Health Ministry director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield cited evidence from the World Health Organisation that children are unlikely vectors for the virus. Another Ministry of Health report, estimated educational closures accounted for a mere 2-4 percent reduction in Covid-19 (based on UK data). A report by Jon Hopkins University, however, cautioned against opening schools. “Without more conclusive evidence,” the authors say, “it is difficult to quantify the role of children in propagating COVID-19 to other students, their family members, teachers, and school staff.” Better safe than sorry, they ultimately recommended.
Businesses can’t open their doors if they are unable to implement physical distancing but schools must open their gates
There is an educational silver lining to this arrangement, however. The Ministry of Health report also said school closures “more severely impact groups of children already disadvantaged by the education system such as Māori and Pacific children and children with additional learning needs.” Online learning relies on a stable home environment and access to devices and the internet, which, despite the Government’s best efforts, many children go without and are falling further behind. Opening schools does help these children, so there is educational benefit for this.
I’m not in the “public health at all costs” camp and recognise the economic tradeoffs here. It’s important to get the economy firing again, and small businesses especially need to get trading again as soon as possible to give them the best chance of surviving this economic shock. It’s also important to gradually return to a sense of normality, which involves children at school. If children can’t be at home, school is the next best place.
It’s also important to gradually return to a sense of normality, which involves children at school
But from a public health perspective, turning schools into daycares and teachers to babysitters isn’t worth it based on the evidence. Many teachers I know are happy to turn up and serve in this way—to give the children a chance to see familiar faces once again—to dutifully do their bit. My hat goes off to them, but it is a sacrifice that they shouldn’t have to make.