Reopening of in-person schooling is imperative to reduce learning losses in children

Studies in America, Canada, Europe and several developing countries demonstrate COVID-19 increasing learning gaps between socio-economic groups of children.
Alarmingly, such learning losses will have lifelong negative impacts on children, mostly those from poor families. In an American study, the percentage of children scoring below benchmark on reading increased from 28% to 47% (kindergarten), 26% to 43% (Grade 1), 26% to 34% (Grade 2), 28% to 35% (Grade 3), 23% to 30% (Grade 4), and 28% to 36% (Grade 5) between school years 2019/2020 and 2020/2021. The studies also showed that, in America, the largest learning losses caused by COVID-19 disruptions are among Black and Hispanic children, compared to White children. Similar socio-economic disparity results have been published for other countries.
Clearly, education authorities cannot ignore the COVID-19-related calamity that is developing. Something must be done, and that something is not homologous. A mixture of responses is needed. Guyana’s Minister of Education, Priya Manikchand, has not been shy in articulating a vision that pragmatically combines safety of children and teachers with increasing face-to-face teaching, while continuing to improve on the approaches that allow learning away from physical classrooms. COVID-19 has shown there are viable ways of improving education, but nothing has shown that it can replace in-school learning. As a country, we will never reach 100% agreement on what the correct response might be. But the Minister of Education and the Irfaan Ali-led Government are on the right track – gradual return to normalcy. We cannot forever defer the return to in-school education.
President Ali is leading from the front in ensuring adolescents are vaccinated, for Guyana to reopen schools as safe as possible with a still very deadly COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc around the world. While the President, the Minister of Education and the Minister of Health are out in an aggressive campaign for adolescent vaccination, unsavory characters are working sinisterly to promote an antivaxxer platform. The Leader of the Opposition’s party, the People’s National Congress, is busy organising protests, mainly in Georgetown and Linden, in support of misguided citizens who repeat the misinformed and misguided mantra of “My Body, My Choice”.
For all the havoc that COVID-19 has created, with millions of deaths around the world, hospitals overwhelmed, livelihoods shattered, we have to reflect on how we get back to normal. COVID is now impacting children’s education for a third consecutive school year. It literally brought a premature end to the 2019/2020 school year. It totally shattered the entire 2020/2021 school year. No matter what happens in the next few weeks, COVID-19 is already impacting on the 2021/2022 school year. For many countries, governments are trying to minimise the negative impact of COVID-19 on the 2021/2022 school year.
Various studies have shown unequivocal loss of learning caused by COVID-19 because of the disruption of in-school learning. While all children are affected, studies have shown that the well-established learning gap between students from well-off families and those from poor families has been further amplified by COVID-19. It is for this reason resumption of in-school learning is an imperative.
While not everyone is happy about vaccination mandates for both teachers and children aged 12 years and older, in many countries, these measures are being adopted.
But the vaccine mandate has caused an uproar in Guyana. Some teachers have refused to take the vaccine, and have adopted the dangerous mantra “My Body, My Choice”. The Guyana Teachers Union has come out swinging in support of those teachers that have refused the COVID-19 vaccines. Thankfully, most teachers have already been vaccinated, and the response of parents and children to the adolescent vaccination campaign so far has been nothing short of spectacular. Unvaccinated teachers who do not have regular COVID-19 testing represent a danger in classrooms. Refusing the vaccine obligates them to prove they are COVID-19 negative. It is their choice which one, but refusing either these measures is reckless, and must not be condoned.
Clearly, vaccination does not guarantee total protection against the misery and havoc of COVID-19, but vaccination is the most potent weapon in the public health’s armoury to reduce the havoc of COVID-19. More than 95% of all new infections in Guyana and around the world are among the unvaccinated. More than 98% of all COVID-19-related hospitalisations are among the unvaccinated, and more than 99% of all COVID-19 deaths are among the unvaccinated.
Although SARS-CoV-2 infections among children are typically asymptomatic or mild, severe symptoms can lead to hospitalisation. Rare cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) also occur. As of now, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly reported more than 4M cumulative pediatric COVID-19 cases, 20,000 cumulative hospitalisations, and 350 cumulative deaths.
In Guyana itself, more than 3,500 children have been infected, and a handful has been hospitalised. New paediatric infections in Guyana and around the world are increasing. But just as we are taking measures to reduce infections, hospitalisations and deaths, we must take measures to stop the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. For adolescents, vaccination is imperative, children and adults in those schools are vaccinated for each other. For schools with children under the age of twelve, it is imperative that every adult takes the vaccine for the welfare of everyone in those schools.

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