Not sending kids to school a greater risk | Pauline Miceli

In the midst of a resurgence of COVID-19, many are questioning the wisdom of re-opening schools. But Children’s Commissioner PAULINE MICELI argues that the risk of not sending children to school is greater than the risk posed by the virus itself

The Commission has just recommended the re-opening of schools, arguing that: “Children must be protected from the risks of COVID-19; but their educational, social and mental wellbeing must also be catered for”. This contrasts with a statement you released last March, in which you recommended ‘keeping children at home as much as possible.’ What made you change your views since then?

First of all, I understand that there is a lot of anxiety surrounding this issue; and I can relate to that anxiety… because even I, as a grandmother, feel concerned.

But there is a difference between today and last March. In the first few months of the crisis, very little was known about this virus: not just here in Malta, but all over the world. We didn’t know how to manage the situation. And there was a lot of fear.

People over 55 – including myself – were made to feel more vulnerable than they really were. At the time, it felt unsafe even just to go to the grocery down the street. The sensation was that the virus was absolutely everywhere; and the advice we were given was to stay at home. The fear was so great, that most people heeded that advice. In any case, there was nowhere to go… except maybe for a solitary walk by the sea.

Shops were closed; restaurants and bars likewise; so even if people wanted to defy the health recommendations, the simple fact was that they couldn’t. So people had no option but to self-isolate… and we now know that this had had a disastrous effect on mental health: not just for adults, or vulnerable categories; but even for children.

In time, however, we began seeing what was happening in the rest of the world. We began to realise that – while there naturally still remains the need to be cautious – some of that fear had been exaggerated.

Having said this, I still think it was premature to open everything up again so abruptly this summer: especially when it comes to parties and mass gatherings. You can’t expect young people not to go out and enjoy themselves… or, even less, to observe social distancing at a mass event.

Nonetheless, the impression we all had at the beginning – that it was unsafe to go out at all, under any circumstance – has since been revised. We now know more about the virus, and how to contain it. This is why I feel that, while the need to protect children from COVID-10 remains in place, we can no longer ignore their educational, social and mental wellbeing needs.

But while there are obvious differences between ‘going to school’ and ‘attending a mass event’… it is still a case of large numbers of people gathering in the same place. Why, then, should the same restrictions not also apply to school attendance?

The main difference is that, unlike party or mass event, school is a controlled environment. If you look at the guidelines issued by the Education Ministry, for instance, you will realise that they are more or less the same guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation.

The underlying rationale is that the rate of transmission between children is very low. In fact, children account for only 2% of the total number of cases globally. And the effect of the virus itself is less severe on children. In Malta, certainly, there have been no child fatalities to date. Even in the rest of the world, the child mortality rate has been very low…

But the argument is more about the danger of children passing on the virus to adults: including their parents, grandparents, and even teachers…

I am certainly no expert in medical matters; but again, the WHO guidelines suggest that children are not significant drivers of the pandemic. Research shows that it is actually adults who have a much higher chance of infecting children, than vice versa. So all this emphasis on children posing a health risk to adults is, I think, misplaced.

Besides: the reality is that children have been free to run around outdoors all summer anyway. It wasn’t a problem for children to go to the beach, or to attend birthday or confirmation parties. So why is it suddenly a problem for children to go back to school?

Part of the answer might be that people are sceptical about the Education Ministry’s guidelines themselves. The Malta Union of Teachers, for instance, argues that some of the measures – including the concept of ‘bubbles’ [keeping students within closely confined groups] – cannot be implemented for purely practical reasons. What are your own views?

I don’t think there is a problem with the guidelines themselves. If we were to follow them to the letter, I think everybody would be safe.

But – because there is always a ‘but’ – are we ready for the implementation stage? Are all the protocols in place? I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it seems that not all schools are equally prepared. Independent schools, for instance, have been very well-organised from day one. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have managed to offer both on- and offline education. So much so, that lessons continued to be given regularly, even when schools were closed during the first few months of the crisis.

Government schools, on the other hand… I am sorry to say it, but they weren’t so well-organised at all. And the same goes for Church schools, too. So I think we have to ask ourselves why this is happening. If independent schools could manage to make the necessary changes to ensure that children continued to receive education, even under those conditions… why were government schools not capable of doing the same?

Meanwhile, the concerns with COVID-19 have to be balanced out by a recent UN report which places Malta at 34th out of 41 countries in terms of child well-being. Would you say this is also, in part, the result of flaws in our education system?

The way I see it, COVID-19 should really serve as an eye-opener for us to rethink the way we educate our children in general. Despite all the resources we invest in education – and Malta is, I think, one of the EU countries that invests the most in the sector – our results have consistently been very poor. Very poor indeed.

So I think the education authorities should take this as an opportunity to make all the necessary changes to the syllabi. This is something we have been talking about for years now; my own background is in education, and I remember having these discussions well over a decade ago.

Long before COVID-19, we were already talking about reforming the syllabi… for instance, to make them less ‘information-heavy’. The idea was to focus more on skills, rather than just information.

At the same time, however, there were teachers who resisted these changes. In some cases, it may have down to a fear that their own subject would lose a little ‘prestige’ or ‘importance’ within the syllabus.

But part of the reason – and this is where my office comes in to the picture – is that our education system doesn’t place enough emphasis on the rights of the child.

For instance: in one of the focus group discussions we organise, one of the children told us that: ‘Teachers don’t want us to speak, because if we show how much we know, they will feel challenged.’

I think that this child had a point. I’m sorry to say this, but our mindset, in general, is not focused enough on children’s needs. If we don’t even give our children the chance to speak… if teachers keep insisting they are always right, for fear of losing their authority… how can we expect our children to develop skills such as critical thinking?

Earlier you mentioned the ‘poor results’ obtained by Malta in international education rankings. Would you say that this is also in part due to the system not placing the child at its centre?

It is definitely one of the reasons, yes. But I have to point out that it is not always the fault of the schools themselves, or individual teachers. Parents are also up to a point responsible.

It’s a vicious circle. Parents put pressure on the school to, for instance, give their children more homework. Because their reasoning is that, if teachers don’t give a lot of homework… it means they’re ‘not doing their job well’.

And yet, we are supposed to have policies to determine how much homework a child is given; and ‘more homework’ does not translate into ‘better education’.

We hear of cases, for instance, where children are made to stay up late because of the sheer amount of homework they are given; and this is simply not on. It has a direct effect on the child’s mental well-being.

That, too, is part of the reason why we’re not achieving the desired results.

Another widely known issue is the relatively high level of absenteeism from schools. Much of the resistance to schools re-opening has so far come from parents, citing health concerns. But let’s face it, there has always been a certain level of resistance… as attested by the high number of fines handed down for absenteeism. Is this also why you are so adamant on schools re-opening in the first place?

There are many people out there – and we know this, also because we’ve received a lot of messages, including from people in the education sector – who are concerned about the idea that schooling is no longer considered as ‘compulsory’.

Because this is the message that is being sent out by the authorities: that it is ‘OK’ not to send your children to school.

It has even been argued that it is a parent’s ‘right’ to keep their children at home, given that there are health concerns. And there has been talk about the possibility of amending the existing laws, to temporarily remove the legal obligation in view of the pandemic.

But the reality is that parents have a legal and moral duty to send their children to school. And this is not something that can so easily be put aside; especially now, when we know so much more about this virus, and how to effectively manage it in a school environment.

So yes; I am very worried about a possible reversal of all the achievements we have made in past decades. Malta was among the first countries to ratify the international conventions about compulsory schooling. After World War II, there was a drive to boost education as much as possible… to counter the extreme poverty that existed at the time; to increase opportunities, and to provide the population with much-needed skills

Times have changed since then; but this does not lessen the need for education today. The poor results we keep getting, alone, attest to this…

Are you arguing, then, that the risks posed by COVID-19 are not justification enough to outweigh the legal obligation to send children to school?

Yes; but it’s not just me. It is also in the WHO guidelines themselves. The risks run by children who stay away from school, are greater than their risk of contracting COVID-19.

So what I’m suggesting, to all those concerned – the schools, the teachers, the parents, the unions, the politicians – is: let’s all put our heads together, and make our schools safe for our children and our teachers. Let’s not succumb to fear.

We can make it work. There are individual schools which have managed to get themselves organised; so it can be done. And with all the resources at our disposal… I think we can make it work on the national level, too.