School reopening should be done on a risk-based approach – with situations closely monitored, particularly for the effect of COVID-19 variants – and school closure be used as a last resort.
Schools have been fully or partially closed for more than a year in many developing countries. The world’s longest full closure as of 29 March 2021 was Bangladesh, at 47 weeks, according to UNESCO. Myanmar was close behind, at 43 weeks, and the Philippines, at 33 weeks. When partial school closure is included, Nepal is highest (53 weeks) in the world and schools in South Asia continued especially long school closures among developing Asian region.
Indeed, as COVID-19 variants surge in some developing countries in Asia, policy makers may even be considering extending school closures. But is this the right approach?
Some policy makers want to keep schools closed until large-scale vaccination is achieved in a given population, which may contribute to herd immunity. Yet, this goal will take time, especially in developing countries, given limited vaccine availability, complicated logistics, and phased deployment approaches. This is particularly true since vaccination for school-aged children has not yet been fully developed.
It is against this backdrop that we ask whether school closures should still be considered a priority option for developing countries.
We argue that school closure should be a last resort. The projected economic cost is huge: A recent Asian Development Bank estimate suggests a present value of $1.25 trillion in future earnings losses in Asia and the Pacific assuming that every student loses $180 every year from their expected future annual earnings. In addition, many developing countries have struggled to adopt online and distance education, due to variable access to digital devices and internet, meaning many children are simply going without schooling.
Despite these apparent long-term economic losses and rising learning inequality, some policy makers still wish to keep schools closed to protect children from COVID-19. It makes sense to introduce strict lockdown including school closure when COVID-19 variants are increasing exponentially as we have seen in some developing countries for the last few weeks. For those countries with relatively less risk, however, it is reasonable to question whether school closure is the best option to save children’s lives.
Evidence from Australia, Germany, Italy, the Republic of Korea and the United States consistently shows that school closure appears to have limited or no effect on COVID-19 incidence.
Looking at ground reality, school closure does not mean children are quarantined all the time. Some might meet their friends at the friends’ houses or at the playground, without wearing masks. And even if they stay home, evidence in Bangladesh suggests that even poor households bring coaching and private tutoring from outside the family to compensate for learning loss. These behaviors could bring more COVID-19 risks to children and their household members.
Conversely, several rigorous studies provide evidence of what COVID-19 infection would be like without school closure. Evidence from Australia, Germany, Italy, the Republic of Korea and the United States consistently shows that school closure appears to have limited or no effect on COVID-19 incidence. The exception is Israel, which found a small gradual increase in COVID-19 incidence after schools were reopened, but no observed increase of COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths.
Policy makers in developing countries may counter that evidence for developing countries is lacking. This sounds pertinent because schools in developing countries may not have good water and sanitation facilities. Higher density in classrooms and greater teacher absenteeism could also challenge safe school environments against COVID-19 transmission. In addition, policy makers could argue that the above evidence is outdated given new COVID-19 variants, which could cause more pediatric infections resulting into some cases of mortality for school-aged children.
However, where COVID-19 variants are not increasing exponentially, each country could gather evidence through pilot school reopenings in their own contexts, with stringent provision of measures in place to protect student safety. The COVID-19 variants could affect more children. However, COVID-19 infection might not necessarily come more from school reopening compared with the counterfactual scenario of continued school closure. In case it does, the effect of school closure may not be large enough to justify the irreparable damage to children in both the near and the longer term.
Evidence for developing countries may not get produced fast enough, and many guidance notes and lessons learned are available nowadays for making schools safer, such as wearing masks. Schools that follow good practices could actually be safer for children than keeping them at home.
It goes without saying, that if school closures are lifted, situations must be closely monitored, particularly the effect of COVID-19 variants.
As such, we must keep in mind that school closure should not be a first option. The school reopening decision should adopt a risk-based approach and school closure be used as a last resort.