Students safer in schools, let classes resume: experts

By Trung Son, Manh Tung   February 27, 2020 | 01:25 am PT
Students safer in schools, let classes resume: experts
A medical staff disinfects a classroom at Trung Vuong Secondary School in Hanoi, February 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of Trung Vuong Secondary School.
There's little chance that students will catch the novel coronavirus infection in schools, and they should return to classes, experts say.

"Between letting students stay home and go to schools, I personally think that it'd be safer for them at schools," Phan Trong Lan, head of Vietnam’s leading epidemiology Ho Chi Minh City Pasteur Institute, said at a meeting to discuss the ongoing fight against the Covid-19 outbreak.

Authorities in several major localities had extended the Lunar New Year break for students as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 disease.

At first the extension was for a week starting February 3, when classes were set to resume after a fortnight-long break. This was extended twice by a week each before it was decided that all students stay home until the end of this month.

Lan said that across the world, the number of Covid-19 infected patients under 10 years of age and between 10 and 20 years made up just 1 percent each of the total, and there has not been a single instance of anyone getting infected in schools.

So far, there have been just two students in Japan who got infected, and they did not contract the virus at school.

Mask not a must

Regarding concerns about insufficient number of face masks for students to wears every day at school, Lan said the World Health Organization has already advised that only those who have been sickened by the virus, are directly treating infected patients or in crowded public places need to wear face masks.

There is no need for students to wear masks in their classes, he said, and the WHO's recommendation should be widely spread to put parents at ease, he said.

Strict monitoring

Lan, however, also added the caveat that careful evaluation of the epidemic’s status would continue if a decision was taken to send students back in schools.

"HCMC has a very good disease surveillance system and so the detection of infections in schools will be methodical and thorough. Any students with symptoms of coughing and fever will be quarantined immediately," he said.

Concurring with Lan, Truong Huu Khanh, head of the Infection Department, Internal Neurology at the Children’s Hospital No.1 in HCMC, said the ratio of 1 percent for patients under 10 was taken from 10,000 Covid-19 patients in China.

"The figure is completely accurate and undisputable," he said.

"If we are saying it is scary to put students back in school, then we have to ask who is the one that is getting them infected, " Khanh said.

Only adults around the children can transmit the virus because none of the students have traveled to China or any other Covid-19 affected areas once the novel coronavirus broke out.

Therefore, it is necessary to tighten control over adults rather than students, he said.

Holiday extension safer?

Khanh expressed his concern over reports several localities were planning on letting students stay at home until mid-March even as the epidemic situation in Vietnam has stayed stable for the past week.

"Would it really make us feel more secure if the school break extends further?"

"If we are saying that students should only return to schools in April, when it is hotter and there is scorching sunlight to limit the spread of the virus, will we also drop our quarantine protocol at airports and border gates by then, or continue to be on guard?"

Compared to Vietnam, which has seen 16 Covid-19 confirmations, Singapore and Thailand have had 93 infection 40 infections as of Thursday morning. Yet they were letting their students go to schools, Khanh noted.

Those who actually need to wear face masks at schools are teachers, security guards, and staff that work in the canteen because they are people that come into direct contact with many others, he continued.

"What needs to be done is to make students wash their hands properly and regularly," Khanh said.

Fears persist

In HCMC, all schools have taken preparatory measures to have their students back.

They have readied hand disinfectant and soap as guided by the Ministry of Health and some have set up body temperature scanning machines to screen those who enter and leave their premises.

Huynh Thanh Phu, principal of the Nguyen Du High School in Saigon’s District 10, said the school has had staff clean desks, chairs, stair railings repeatedly, and the school’s management board has practiced the health ministry’s protocol on Covid-19 prevention many times.

"We are ready for students to return. But we cannot deny that that we're also nervous and afraid."

Even if one student is suspected of being infected, it’d be very difficult to quarantine others because the school is always a crowded place and it’s hard to tell how many have contacted that one student, he said.

Tran Mau Minh, former principal of Tran Van On Secondary School in District 1, said the city has never experienced such a long break in the middle of the school year.

Yet, based on his own experience in facing the deadly bird flu H5N1 over 10 years ago, Minh said he agrees with the idea of allowing students to stay at home until the end of March.

Back then, his school had to shut down 10 classes after some students were suspected of being infected. Every morning, the school had to check students’ body temperature and keep a close eye on all students and it was tiring for both students and teachers.

HCMC, the biggest city in Vietnam, has nearly two million students from kindergarten to continuing education and vocational training colleges.

As of now, neither the city nor other localities nationwide have taken an official decision on when to reopen schools and colleges.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam said at a government meeting on February 14 that schools need to ensure they are free of any novel coronavirus infection before letting students return to class.

"Safety should be guaranteed from both the professional perspective and in the minds of students and parents. Students should not be sent back to school if there are still worries of getting infected and worries over whether they should wear a mask in class or not," he’d said.

The last of Vietnam’s 16 Covid-19 patients recorded until now was discharged from hospital Wednesday morning. Over the past two weeks, no new infections have been reported in the country.

Covid-19 has so far affected 50 countries and territories. Most of the more than 2,800 deaths have occurred in China, followed by Iran with 22, South Korea with 13 and Italy with 12.

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