Experts want all children to be able to go to school full-time: “You cannot exaggerate the importance of school”

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In the coming days, a decision will be taken about the reopening of the schools and what the restart will look like for the students in Belgium. In the exit strategy of Covid-19, a lot was invested in subsidies to companies, benefits, temporary unemployment, … The quick reopening of companies and the recovery of the economy were priorities.

The education and needs of children and young people only came up at a later stage. At the end of May-beginning of June, a school offer was developed for primary school children and preschoolers. Unfortunately, one school in three was not able to give this optimal form and as a result one in three children was still out in the cold. For the high school students, the situation was even more dismal, with the majority of them, not counting one closing day, not even making it to school after mid-March. Inadvertently, as a society, we have caused the children in our country to doubt the meaning and importance of education. Keeping children away from school also suggests that the school is an unsafe place and we should debunk that false message as soon as possible.

More than 2.3 million children and young people under the age of 18 live in Belgium. They are not organized in trade unions, political parties or lobby groups. Their voice is therefore often not heard or taken seriously.

However, these 2.3 million children and young people are our future. And as a society, we seriously risk the future of our youth if we do not urgently and resolutely draw the children and young people’s map. The complete restart of the schools is a central factor in this.

Inspiration for this can easily be gained at this summer’s youth camps. Thanks to an adequate approach, only a limited number of infections were detected and no major outbreaks have been recorded to date. We know from a lot of scientific and epidemiological research that the health risks for children and young people are minimal and the transmission of Covid-19 is limited. The paediatricians represented in the Belgian Pediatric Covid-19 Task Force therefore see no medical reason why a complete restart of the schools would not be possible.

Supported by the most recent international scientific insights, we therefore ask that the reopening of the schools be the main priority. Compulsory education and the right to education must be claimed. An effect of 50 and even 80% is NOT sufficient. Distance learning is NOT enough. A theoretical roadmap is NOT sufficient. Schools must be given the resources, both logistics and staff, so that it is feasible to open fully and provide full-time education for ALL children.

Is the school really that important for children and young people?

Yes. Yes. And yes again! Moreover, it is not only about learning skills, factual and professional knowledge, things that are spontaneously associated with a school. At least as important are the other functions that a school fulfills: the stimulating, safe and connecting environment that they experience there, the provision of day structure and daily activities, the stimulation of motor development and playing, the social contact and social ‘exercise’ that children and young people in school, the supporting role that a teacher can have for a vulnerable child, the detection function for children in need, … All these roles can be fulfilled much less or not by distance learning.

Several studies have already shown the serious psychosocial risks of school closure for children and young people, and certainly for those from vulnerable groups. After all, young people with mental health problems and other vulnerabilities such as a precarious home situation or special learning and care needs are then left out.

What needs to be done so that all children and young people can go back to school?

Fully support schools to ensure that school attendance proceeds safely with realistic, sensible and clear safety rules. Excessive, ineffective measures will cause many schools to fail in practice and therefore not to open.

The Task Force therefore proposes the following general hygiene measures tailored to the target group and the context at school:

  • No 1.5 m distance between students, indoors in their classroom, and outdoors within their year bubble (but between students and adults and between adults)
  • Rational use of mouth mask for the older age groups (+ 12 years) as generally recommended (e.g. when on the move outside the classroom or year bubble such as entering the school or in the hallways)

Naturally, the other hygiene recommendations remain unaffected:

  • Disease Symptoms? Stay at home and see a doctor
  • Hand hygiene: wash hands regularly
  • Cough and sneeze in the elbow or tissue
  • Ventilate on a regular basis
  • Cleaning surfaces

There is no zero risk, but the balance between the benefits and risks of going to school in corona times justifies taking the cards of children and young people and investing in their well-being and future. Today’s children are the nurses, entrepreneurs, bakers, politicians and scientists of tomorrow. Have all children go back to school full-time on September 1. We owe it to them!

Cordial greetings,

The Belgian Pediatric Covid-19 Task Force, represented by, among others

Dr. Tyl Jonckheer
Dr. Marc Raes
Prof. Dr. Ann De Guchtenaere
Prof. Dr. Dimitri Van der Linden
Dr. Sofie Crommen
Dr. Delphine Jacobs
Dr. Annick Covents
Prof. Dr. Petra Schelstraete
Jeroen Verlinden
Dr. Levi Hoste

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