16 September 2020 | Science conversation
Vismita: Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith and this is WHO’s conversations in science. We’re talking to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead for COVID-19. She's also an infectious disease epidemiologist. Welcome, Maria.
Maria: Hi Vismita, thanks for having me.
Vismita: Welcome.We’re going to talk about schools today and reopening schools. And as you know, countries are in different phases of reopening schools. What does the public health science say right now about reopening schools?
Maria: Everyone understands how important schools are for children. Not only for education, but for their wellbeing, for their mental health, for security and, in some situations, it's where many children get food.Many countries are considering opening up their societies as they bring transmission under controland schools are part of that reopening. It's really, really important that we understand that schools don't operate in isolation. Schools are part of communities. So, it's really important that, when we consider opening schools, that we bring transmission in those communities under control.
Vismita: So Maria, we're hearing a lot of questions about, well, kids and COVID-19. So, first let's clarify that. Tell us what we know today about children and COVID-19.
Maria: First of all, children can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Children can develop disease. Although, luckily the majority of children that do get infected with this virus tend to have mild disease or even asymptomatic infection, meaning they don't have any symptoms, but that's not universal. We do know that some children can develop severe disease and some children have died from infection. The other thing that we're learning about now is about transmission in children. I first said that children can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and we're noticing that through some of the studies, they can be infected from contact with infected parents; they can transmit it to others. Although, that seems to occur less often than transmission does among adults. One of the big things that we're learning about right now is the difference in the younger children, is in the younger children, the youngest children versus older children or teenage children. And there appear to be differences in transmission among the youngest children transmitting less to each other, compared to teenage children, which appear to transmit at the same rate that adults do.
Vismita: Again, we're learning new evidence, new information every day about this. And as we learn, as the new evidence comes in, we'll keep you all updated. But we've also, Maria, a question for you is that WHO's also asking schools to do their own risk assessment. Walk us through the steps that schools will need to take to do that risk assessment.
Maria: What we're asking schools to do is look at the school itself. Not all schools look the same globally. They may be different in terms of the way the buildings look, the number of hours that children are at school, the type of ventilation that may be there, if there's boarding that's happening at the schools.And so what we want schools to do is to look at can we apply the public health measures that need to be in place, such as physical distancing and keeping people at least one meter apart, making sure that there's hand hygiene stations, for example, are alcohol-based rub stations in the classrooms, in schools that children can clean their hands. Making sure that there are provisions in place and plans in place if there's a case. If you have a suspect case, what is the plan? How do we quickly detect that case? And what do we do in terms of ensuring that that individual is tested and has the right type of contact tracing and the right type of care. And also making sure that there's a good communication plan in place. Making sure that you're communicating to the students, you're communicating to the adults, the parents of those children, and also the people who work at the school. And then lastly, making sure that you have the right types of environmental controls that are available in the schools: disinfection, for example, making sure you have good ventilation and other types of provisions. So, all of these things need to be taken into consideration when considering reopening schools.
Vismita: So Maria, paint me a picture of how the students and teachers will need to change their behaviour to keep themselves and their communities safe.
Maria: What a school day will look like will depend on the decisions that are made by that school system. But what is really important for all students, no matter what age, is to practice the physical distancing, to clean their hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based rub, to make sure that they get good information and that they can ask a trusted adult any questions that they have about this virus and really follow the instructions that are put in place at the school.
Vismita: That was Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, talking to us about schools reopening. Remember, we're learning new science every day, new evidence comes in every day, and as that comes in, we will keep you informed. Until then, stay tuned, stay safe and stick with science.
Vismita Vismita Gupta-Smith
Maria Dr Maria Van Kerkhove