Referring to the information about school closures available on the United Nations website on Education, Prof. Malawige pointed out that even when Western countries had a far larger number of infected cases, the schools were kept open. For example, in November 2020 when UK had large waves of Covid-19 the schools were open. However, schools in Sri Lanka remained closed. In May 2021 only 23 countries in the world had school closures and Sri Lanka was one of them. At present, in Sep 2021, only 15 countries including Sri Lanka have complete closure of schools. She raised the question whether we can wait till all children are vaccinated before we send them to school.
Gateway College organised a special session by Professor Neelika Malawige, Professor and Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, University of Sri Jayawardenapura, on ‘The COVID situation in Sri Lanka and the impact on Schooling’ on Friday, 3 rd September. This virtual session was open to the entire Gateway community; teachers, parents, past pupils and students.
Professor Malawige began on a very positive note by saying that the current lockdown appears to be having an effect with the number of calls to the Covid-19 call centres decreasing and that the effect of this will show in 2 to 3 weeks’ time. Referring to international studies on the subject, she pointed out that children have a lower risk of being hospitalized and dying from Covid-19 in comparison to adults and that is the reason why vaccination programmes all over the world have focused on the older sections of the population. She also explained that Covid-19 related deaths among children are due to the same risk factors as in adults such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease, cancer and so on. Also in babies of 0 to 3 months.
She also addressed the effect of school closures on children. Education, she said, may not be much affected in international schools but the situation isn’t the same in government schools. She also reminded that Education is only one aspect of school. It is the other aspects of schooling that are the more important reasons for students to go to school and these have been taken away right now with devastating effects.
Prof. Malawige further pointed out that even now, only a few countries immunize children due to them being a low-risk segment of the population. Countries that are vaccinating 12 to 18 year olds are countries such as France, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Poland. On the other hand, in UK, 16 to 17 year old healthy children have only been given 1 dose because of the rare incidence of myocarditis mainly in males of 12 to 17 years after the second dose. But if 12 to 15 year olds are high risk or have an immunocompromised person at home they are vaccinated.
She reiterated that Sri Lanka has had more school closures than any other country in the world despite much lower case/death rates. Also, that in other countries schools opened way before children were vaccinated and she reminded that children have a low risk of severe disease as well. She pointed out that Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF has said that reopening schools cannot wait. Towards the end of her talk, Prof. Malawige also answered questions raised by the audience on such practical aspects as what kind of masks should be used and the efficacy of various vaccines. She asked the parent community to think about the practical aspects of waiting until children above 12 years are vaccinated before opening schools in Sri Lanka. She pointed out that this could take as long as January 2022 or beyond and that this may not be a very practical approach to take.