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In addition, in the cases in which children were infected, they were then “much less likely to transmit the virus to others – whether to other children or other adults”, Spaull said.
The countries they studied included Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and China.
“So, I make the argument that the youngest children should go back to school first.”
Spaull added: “The economic and social cost of keeping these children at home is very high. If you have very young children at home, their parents and caregivers can’t go back to work, so you can’t re-open the economy. Because parents can’t go to work and take care of their kids – and these kids can’t take care of themselves.
“There are also a lot of social costs to keeping children locked down; both that they can’t see their same-age peers, their friends, mental health costs, learning costs, nutrition costs. When schools are open, nine million kids get a free school meal every day.”
This was informed by the unfolding catastrophic damage to the economy wrought by the lockdown, he said.
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“Some economists have estimated there are an additional four million South Africans who have moved into extreme poverty as a result of the lockdown,” Spaull added.
“That means they are surviving on less than R10 a day. So even if they spent all their money on food, they wouldn’t be able to buy enough calories to support a normal person.”
This would include a severe impact on children at home, too – without the support of programmes like school feeding schemes.
In his practical recommendations, Spaull said: “It’s more about managing the protective equipment available to teachers, transport workers, school feeding operators – all of the adults that are involved in schooling – making sure there are preparations available to ensure they don’t catch the virus from each other. So, that the principal doesn’t catch it from other teachers, for example.
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“If you have very old teachers – like older than 60 – or if you have people who have other risk factors like diabetes or heart conditions, the Department of Basic Education should plan to substitute these teachers.”
This would present significant administrative, timetabling and logistical challenges, Spaull predicted.
“We know this virus is going to be with us for at least a year. Must we keep schools and the economy locked down for an entire year? We simply can’t do that. The lockdown was meant to buy time to prepare the healthcare system – it wasn’t meant as an ongoing measure to stop infections.”