Current AffairsEducation

Nic Spaull Policy Brief – Who Should Go Back to School First?

By May 19, 2020No Comments
boy reading a book in sunset

Nic Spaull is a Senior Researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University and a well-respected expert in the education sector in South Africa. He recently released a policy brief summarising the emerging international evidence as it pertains to the question of children going back to school.

His policy brief presents evidence on key considerations in answering this question, including the COVID-19 risks of illness and death in children, children as transmitters of the virus, and the social and economic costs of keeping children at home.

The emerging international evidence is presented from research conducted in China, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, America, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Iceland (who have tested the largest percentage of their population).

Children and COVID-19 risks

There appears to be a consensus among the emerging international research that children under the age of 10 years old are;

  1. Less likely than adults to catch COVID-19, either from other children or from adults;
  2. Less likely to transmit the virus, even when they are infected
  3. Are extremely rare found to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19

These trends were consistent across countries including those in North America, Europe, and Asia. While South Africa is still relatively early in the pandemic, the age-profile of infections and deaths has been consistent with international findings.

As of 2 May, no deaths were reported for persons under the age of 20. And of the positive cases, only 0.4% are aged 11-20 and 0.3% aged 0-10 years.

In sum, young children are low risk when it comes to being infected by the virus and in transmitting the virus.

reading a school book

Impacts of keeping children out of school

Children under the age of 10 are the highest child-care burden in their households. With these young children out of school and at home in need of supervision and care, caregivers are prevented from returning to work and earning an income.

Younger children also have limited capability to follow self-directed learning at home – they may not be able to read by themselves and they often require more active stimulation to learn. Spaull surmises that it is unlikely that any curricular learning is happening at home for the poorest learners in the country. Given what is known about the loss of learning during school holidays, limited access to computers, internet, and learning materials, and a lack of preparation for distance-learning.

See our blog about the digital divide in education.

Current efforts

While the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has been providing COVID-19 Learner Support” via TV and radio, it only targets ECD and Grades 10-12. In addition, it is only available for 1.5 hours per day. This ignores learners in Grades R-9, and households with multiple children in different age groups needing to share access to TV or radio.

Further, it does not appear that keeping children out of school necessarily contributes to flattening the curve. Spaull references a widely cited rapid systematic review on the effectiveness of school closures in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Where the authors conclude that data from China, Hong Kong, and Singapore suggest that school closures did not contribute to controlling the virus. He also cites another study from China that concluded that “social distancing alone, as implemented in China during the outbreak, is sufficient to control COVID-19.”

See our blog on what we can learn from other countries.

Children’s wellbeing is expected to improve if they could return to school, given the receipt of meals, peer interaction and caregivers being freed from childcare to work or relax, improving their mental health and caregiving abilities. In sum, keeping children out of school does not necessarily curb the spread of the virus, and instead, there are more apparent negative implications for their wellbeing, their caregivers’ wellbeing, and for the economy.

chalk board in a classroom

Spaull’s suggested evidence-based approach

Spaull states that “given the practical impossibility of continuing with meaningful learning from home – at least for the poorest 80% of learners, the emphasis for DBE should be making schools safe for learners and teachers to return.”

DBE has decided that schools will return as of 1 June 2020, and re-opening schools is in line with other countries that have had more severe outbreaks. However, DBE plans to start with Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners returning.

Spaull argues that emerging evidence should be followed – based on the evidence of children under the age 10 years being least susceptible to COVID-19 infection, illness, mortality, and transmission, they should be the first to go back. He suggests that in addition to Grade 12 learners, Grades R, 1, 2, and 3 learners should return (rather than Grade 7) and ECD sites should be reopened.

A phased-in approach is suggested with special precautions for teachers and close monitoring of infection rates of teachers and families of returning children. Spaull does, however, acknowledge the administrative complexities involved, including how to manage the risks for adults in the education system, possibly temporarily replacing high-risk staff (over the age of 60 and with pre-existing conditions).

Despite these challenges, the suggested approach would curtail risks to teachers and parents more so than if high school learners returned to school first, would allow many caregivers to return to work and earn an income, and in turn contribute to the functioning of the economy.

The following images have been taken from Spaull’s policy brief.


graph of covid infections by age

graph of deaths from covid by age

By Jenna Joffe