Schools: a key concern

There can be no underestimation of the value of physical schooling - physical contact and an ability to explore the limits of their imaginations are necessary for children to have a satisfactory experience and improved learning outcomes

The Omicron spread has had immense significance for COVID epidemiology beyond the immediate impact on public health. 

Herd immunity was once hailed as a key concept behind COVID control strategies. The underlying assumptions were that the population can gain sufficient levels of immunity through either vaccination or past infection to stop the virus from spreading. 

But the Omicron emergence and rapid global spread has clearly shown that, for such an organism, herd immunity is not possible in the long run. New variants will probably continue to arise and repeated vaccinations and continuation of control measures will be needed to counter these future threats. 

This is the kind of reality we have now grown accustomed to: vaccination and booster, and the advent of a new variant. Thankfully, the virus cannot improve indefinitely: the virus will eventually evolve a spike protein that binds to the ACE2 receptors on the surface of our cells.  According to a McKinsey report, Omicron is about 25% more infectious, evades prior immunity to a greater degree, but causes less severe disease, all relative to Delta. In the United States, this combination of characteristics would lead to Omicron replacing Delta as the dominant variant. 

Omicron will not be the final variant, but it may be the final variant of concern. And it is very possible that we could have a COVID season each winter in the same way we have flu season now. 

This reality serves as the backdrop to remind decision-makers that there can be no underestimation of the value of physical schooling. For children within primary and secondary school settings, physical contact and an ability to explore the limits of their imaginations and intellectual faculties, are necessary for them to have a satisfactory experience and improved learning outcomes. 

In the last 18 months Maltese children have had interrupted face-to-face education, a portion having to grapple with online teaching. Though online teaching has served its purpose, nothing beats the experience of interaction at school, and the value of learning from first-hand experience is crucial in the formation of our children. 

Those attending schools have had to spend long hours in masks, even during sports and recreation, and operating in bubbles. 

Children have paid the price. They spend days wearing a face mask just to be able to be in school. Face masks are one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. An investigation into school outbreaks, supported by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found that schools without an indoor mask requirement were 3.5 times more likely to have an outbreak than schools in which students and staff did have to wear masks. This is why the universal indoor masking is advocated for all children aged two and older, as well as teachers and visitors to schools, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. 

The rest the country has continued to operate within an understanding that vaccination, sanitisation, social distancing and the use of mask is obligatory. On the other hand, catering establishments have enjoyed a ‘boom’ with patrons eating without masks and in close proximity – even though it is clear that social bubbles have long been burst and COVID transmission continues unabated, even with the serenity that vaccination brings. There have been few complaints about this. 

We cannot therefore apply any different yardstick to children in schools. 

Certainly enough, it is now standard wisdom that it has been hard to see transmission in schools, because children generally have mild symptoms. But this leads to infections going undetected. It surely opens up a debate on whether vaccination against COVID should be mandatory for children, just like Polio, Diphteria and Tetanus vaccinations are made obligatory for children. 

High levels of transmission in children would lead to mass educational disruption. Children can easily transmit the coronavirus to other children and to adults, and this would lead to parents and others in the wider community getting sick, including some vaccinated people. To keep breakthrough infections to a minimum, community transmission must be kept low. 

Education Minister Clifton Grima has a massive challenge, as he takes to the education agenda to the end of this legislature, which since the departure of Evarist Bartolo from the role has seen three different ministers. Labour’s legacy in education has to be defined by outcomes of success: in 2020, the share of youths not in employment, education or training (NEET) stood at 9.3%, below the EU 27 average of 11.1 per cent. Encouraging youths to stay in education by offering various learning pathways, will be key to their future security in a world of changing demands for skills and capabilities.