A crucial test of conviction looms for societies everywhere as schools reopen after weeks of lockdown. The pandemic is not yet on the wane; the virus continues to cut a swathe across the globe after infecting over five million people and claiming more than 330,000 lives. Difficult as these times are, a beginning has to be made to recover from the trail of mounting losses, the gravest of which might be to education.
Nine out of 10 schools worldwide have had to undergo closures, impacting about 1.4 billion children, many of whom have no access to online learning. Combined with the hit to health and incomes, the pandemic has possibly delivered the largest reversal in human development on record, according to a United Nations report released this week.
The closure of schools is not merely a matter of short-term absence from classrooms; studies have shown that children suffer lasting damage from the loss of learning that impacts adversely on their academic potential and even future earnings. The children of poor families are deprived of not just lessons but also midday meals, health check-ups and vaccinations. The World Food Programme estimates some 370 million children are in this precarious position. For parents of young children, childcare duties grow heavier and impinge on their ability to carry on with their jobs. Collectively, school closures amount to a loss of opportunity to address societal inequalities in educational attainment and incomes.
Allowing students to leave homes and gather in schools is less risky than it appears, going by available data. Children are less likely to catch an infection and far less likely to die than adults. They also appear to be less likely to carry an infection home; there are few instances of child-to-adult transmissions and infection clusters in schools remain rare. The way the reopening is implemented can help reduce the risks further. There is no textbook approach; each nation is adapting to its environment. Denmark, the earliest in Europe to reopen schools, has left it to the institutions to devise their own safe distancing methods. Taiwan mandates a school will be closed if two or more teachers or students test positive. South Korea's Education Ministry has set up a 24-hour emergency room to keep tabs as it reopened schools this week. Singapore schools will rely on a mix of measures from temperature checks and wearing of masks and face shields, to safe distancing and weekly rotations with home-based learning.
By no means is this easy. It demands the sacrifice of comfort and routines. Rules will need to be scrupulously followed to keep the feared "second wave" of infections at bay. But, ultimately, that is what education is about: equipping students with skills and resilience to deal with challenges and contribute to the community.