School closures have had a huge impact on children’s futures

As schools across Europe are starting to reopen, these authors consider the longer term impact that schools closures have had on children’s wellbeing.

Italian children with backpacks stand by the school gates and wait for their school to open. This has become a familiar sight in Italy as schools across the country have been closed due to the covid-19 pandemic. In October 2020, the governor in Campania, Southern Italy used a regional ordinance to stop classroom lessons in primary, middle, and high schools after a worrying increase of SARS-CoV-2 cases. Some children, parents, and teachers chanted “Give us back the school” in demonstrations that took place after the decision.

This decision to close schools in Italy in the autumn came as cases of SARS-CoV-2 started to increase in Europe in the Autumn. Schools in Italy had initially reopened during the second wave of the pandemic, which began in Europe at the end of the summer, and after a long period of weakening restrictive measures. The resumption of classes coincided with the return to work of millions of Italians after the summer break and the start of autumnal weather, which kept people indoors and increased the opportunity for respiratory diseases like covid-19 to spread. 

More than a month after the reopening of schools in the Campania region, Italy, at the end of the summer, students infected with covid-19 numbered 5,793 (0.08% of the entire student population), teachers numbered 1,020 (0.14% of the total) and employees among non-teaching staff 283 (0.14% of the total).1 

Data from studies worldwide have shown that children are less easily infected by covid-19; they were infected in lower numbers during the first wave, particularly children aged younger than 14.2,3 There is considerable uncertainty about the extent to which school closures contributed to controlling the first wave of the pandemic. 4,5 Recent estimates show that school closures during the second European outbreak could lead to more, not fewer, deaths from covid-19.6 Schools may indirectly support measures against the pandemic as the fact that children and teenagers are required to respect certain rules during school hours may trigger positive attitudes outside school. An analysis of schools reopening in Germany hints that this may have even reduced the increase in cases in school-age children.7 However, data from Italy in February 20218 suggests that more young children are being infected with new variants of covid-19 and experts have called for schools to be reopened cautiously in light of these data. 

Some regional governors have justified their decision to close schools by claiming that students and parents would overload public transport and increase covid transmission. Public transport is overcrowded, particularly around school opening and closing times, and the problem is widespread in all Italian regions. But while politicians have had months of lockdown to find solutions and implement better public services, they are solving the transport problem with school closures. The educational mission of schools is being subordinated to the need to reduce public transport overcrowding. Unfortunately, this is only one example of how bad policy contributes to worsening of the pandemic. Governments have not used time during lockdown effectively to consider strategies for keeping schools safe.   

While we are aware of the need to find a balance between an almost normal life and the best way to control the pandemic, the rights of children and their families must not be forgotten.9 Children have already suffered the consequences of decisions taken during the first wave. Compelling data from UNICEF shows the staggering negative consequences for children worldwide, fuelling systemic inequities for an entire generation.10

It is vital that politicians implement the necessary social rules to contain the virus but without forgetting the educational value that a different, renewed and innovative school environment can have in this challenging epidemiological period. As schools across Europe gradually start to reopen, we must remember that each day of school closures will shape societies for years to come, and this must be balanced against any benefits for pandemic control. The effects of school closures cannot be minimised. This key issue requires urgent global measures to protect children’s rights once and for all.

See also:

Danilo Buonsenso works at the Department of Woman and Child Health and Public Health, Fondazione Policlinico Universitario A. Gemelli, the Dipartimento di Scienze Biotecnologiche di Base, Cliniche Intensivologiche e Perioperatorie, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, and the Global Health Research Institute, Istituto di Igiene, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Rome, Italy.

Cristina De Rose works at the Department of Woman and Child Health and Public Health, Fondazione Policlinico Universitario A. Gemelli, Rome, Italy.

Damian Roland works for the SAPPHIRE Group, Health Sciences, Leicester University, UK.

Alasdair P. S. Munro works at the National Institute of Health Research Southampton Clinical Research Facility and Biomedical Research Centre, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Southampton, UK.

Sebastián González-Dambrauskas works at the Cuidados Intensivos Pediátricos Especializados (CIPe), Casa de Galicia, and the Red Colaborativa Pediátrica de Latinoamérica (LARed Network), Montevideo, Uruguay.

Competing interests: none declared. 


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