With schools in Oman and around the world in the process of opening their doors to children, the World Health Organization has recommended a set of considerations for school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19. The UN health agency has listed out the risks and precautionary measures to be considered before reopening schools
What is the role of children in transmission?
The role of children in transmission is not well understood. To date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported. However, the small number of outbreaks reported among teaching or associated staff also suggests that spread of COVID-19 within educational settings may be limited.
As children generally have milder illness and fewer symptoms, cases may sometimes go unnoticed. Importantly, early data from studies suggest that infection rates among teenagers may be higher than in younger children.
Should children with underlying health conditions (asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc) return to school?
Whether a child should go to school depends on their health condition, the current transmission of COVID-19 within their community, and the protective measures the school and community have in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. While current evidence suggests that the risk of severe disease for children is lower overall than for adults, special precautions can be taken to minimise the risk of infection among children, and the benefits of returning to school should also be considered.
Should teachers and other staff with underlying health conditions return to school?
Adults 60 years and older and people with underlying health conditions are at higher risk for severe disease and death. The decision to return to a teaching environment depends on the individual and should include consideration of local disease trends, as well as the measures being put in place in schools to prevent further spread.
What is the incubation period for children?
The incubation period for children is the same as for adults. The time between exposure to COVID-19 and when symptoms start is commonly around five to six days, and ranges from one to 14 days.
Are there any specific recommendations on school ventilation and air conditioning use?
Clean, natural ventilation should be used inside buildings where possible, without re-circulating the air. If air re-circulation is necessary, filters and duct systems should be cleaned regularly and routinely changed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Heating and cooling systems should be well maintained.
What are the risks during transportation to and from schools?
The following adaptations to transport to and from school should be implemented to limit unnecessary exposure of school or staff members:
Promote and put in place respiratory and hand hygiene, physical distancing measures and use of masks in transportation such as school buses, in accordance with local policy.
Provide tips for how to safely commute to and from school, including for public transportation.
Organise only one child per seat and ensure physical distancing of at least 1m between passengers in school buses, if possible.
If possible and safe, keep the windows of the buses, vans, and other vehicles open.
Does WHO recommend staff and children to wear masks at school? And if yes, what type of masks?
The decision to wear a mask depends on the assessment of risk. For example, how extensive is COVID-19 in the community? Can the school ensure physical distance of at least 1m from others? Are there students or teachers with underlying health conditions?
Fabric masks are recommended to prevent onward transmission in the general population in public areas, particularly where distancing is not possible, and in areas of community transmission. This could include the school grounds in some situations.
Are children at lower risk of COVID-19 than adults?
Children are less often reported as cases when compared with adults, and the illness they experience is usually mild. From data reported to WHO, children and adolescents up to 18 years of age represent 1 to 3 per cent of reported infections, even though this age group makes up 29 per cent of the global population.
While children may be less affected, they may also have a greater number of contacts in school and community settings.
As the COVID-19 pandemic slows down and the new school year is set to begin on November 1, the Supreme Committee on COVID-19 on Monday cleared the general framework on education prepared by the Ministry of Education.
‘The education framework consists of executive procedures and schemes for the development of work mechanisms to ensure quality and comprehensiveness of education,’ the Supreme Committee said in a statement. ‘The frame work also includes guidelines on health precautions, for all students in the sultanate, irrespective of the variation in styles,’ it added.
Prevention and control measures WHO recommends the following:
Policy, practice and infrastructure: Ensure the necessary resources, policies and infrastructure are in place that protect the health and safety of all school personnel, including people at higher risk.
Consider the age and capacity of students to understand and respect measures put in place. Younger children may find it more difficult to adhere to physical distancing or the appropriate use of masks.
Safety and security
School closure or re-opening may affect the safety and security of students and the most vulnerable children may require special attention, such as during pick-up and drop-off.
Hygiene and daily practices
Hand hygiene and environmental cleaning measures should be in place to limit exposure. Schools should consider training of staff and students, a schedule for daily cleaning, availability of hand hygiene facilities and national/local guidance on the use of masks.
Screening and care of sick students, teachers and other school staff
Schools should enforce the policy of ‘staying home if unwell’, waive the requirement for a doctor’s note, create a checklist for parents/students/staff to decide whether to go to school (taking into consideration the local situation) and consideroptions for screening on arrival.
Communication with parents and students
Schools should keep students and parents informed about the measures being implemented to ensure their collaboration and support.
Physical distancing of at least 1m between people should be implemented in the school premises and in the classrooms. This includes increasing desk spacing and staging recesses, breaks and lunchbreaks; limiting the mixing of classes or age groups; considering smaller classes or alternating attendance schedules, and ensuring good ventilation in classrooms.
Tele-schooling and distance learning options such as delivering assignments, broadcasting lessons on radio or television and frequent follow-up support should be adapted to the situation.