Analysis Covid and Corona Insight

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A breath of fresh air. A top child infectious diseases consultant says children do not pass Covid-19 to their parents or grandparents. So why are they not back at school in full force right now?

By Dr Karyn Moshal, Paediatric infectious Diseases Consultant, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

Let’s bring you some good news. 

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Social distancing for young children at school. It’s being enforced in Britain – but the Netherlands is taking a much closer route.

By Paul Martin.

In Dutch schools, there is no government requirement for social distancing between the children. In Britain, where Reception Classes and Year Six Classes began this week (June 11), there is.

Have the Dutch have got it right, and the British got it wrong?

Because the evidence is starkly clear: children under the age of ten have never been shown in any scientific study to have passed on coronavirus to any adult. And therefore the risk that little children catch the virus, then show no symptoms, then go home and infect their parents or older siblings, is extremely remote.

Against this tiny risk, there is the need for decent and proper schooling for small children. My granddaughter went back to school yesterday. How on earth is it educative for her to sit two metres from all her friends? Does this not amount to a form of abuse or at least an unnecessary restriction of the younger children? It certainly creates, literally, a barrier to interaction and the kind of learning that younger children in particular need.

Does it not, as an educational psychotherapist told, tend to make them, in essence, afraid of being – children?

Our granddaughter is, after all, 5.

Dutch schools reopened to all pupils on 11 May. (That country’s proportional rate and and its timing of Covid-19 infection and its Covid-19 virus rate of death per size of population are not much different from those in the UK.)

Linda van Druijten leads De Boomhut and OBS De Klaproos, a primary school and special educational needs school in Arnhem. She explains:

Schools have been “open” here in the Netherlands since 11 May. We are allowed half groups – our classes have between 28 and 32 pupils, so on a given day we can have groups of 15 children in each class.

Unlike in the UK, the Dutch government told us that the children do not have to socially distance from each other, as we can see the rates of infections for under-12s are so low – there is such a small risk in them being in contact with each other.

So the children can play and touch each other; they can have normal friendships. We have a Group A and a Group B – half our pupils are in school and the other half continue remote learning, and they rotate across the week, one day on, one day off.

But the children do have to be 1.5 metres from the adults when in school, and the adults have to be 1.5 metres from each other. This is not always easy.

Those over 7 years old understand it all, and are pretty good at it. And we have very little reason to break that distance. But with the younger children? It’s not always possible.

At the beginning, my teachers said to me, if a child fell down and cuts [his or her] knee, we would have to call an ambulance so people in proper protective equipment could assist that child. But we thought about it very long and hard, and we agreed we would pick up the child, and break the social distance.

And if a child cries, you can’t explain why you cannot comfort them – we decided we would comfort that child.

The risks in both instances are so very low that we felt as a staff group that this was something we were willing to do.

It was the same with masks. At first, many staff members wanted to wear masks. But we discussed it over three or four weeks and we decided that we actually didn’t want to do that. If we wear masks, the children cannot see our expressions and none of us wanted to teach like that.

For all these things, we have a word for it in Dutch that means “safe but not safe”. Yes, the precautions are advisable, but they do not really keep us fully safe.

We have had no substantial absence problems. Less than 1 per cent of the children did not come in, so almost all our parents brought their children back into school.

We did have some teachers who were anxious. They were worried about their vulnerable relatives, for example. For some of our anxious staff who had vulnerable family members, we reduced their pupil groups – we explained to parents that this was better than no teacher at all. We did this in our special education school.

As for the life of the school, learning is happening and the children are adapting. We started with very thorough routines. Handwashing, disinfectant, constant cleaning of door handles and toilets. After the first week, though, we relaxed. It is important that we are aware, but not to get too paralysed by the anxiety. We take it seriously, we remain watchful of symptoms, but we get on with our job; we are teachers and we want to teach!

The Dutch government has now said that all children will be able to come back on 8 June. There is some anxiety again about this, but we will get through that the way we did before, by talking it through and agreeing on how to manage it as a staff.

What is clear is that all the teachers are happy to be back. They say that they don’t feel like teachers unless they are in the classroom with their pupils. That we can now do that is the most important thing – like the bubbles, it helps us to focus and gets our mind away from the fact that things are still not quite normal.”