It’s Time To Relook The Reopening Of Schools, Safely — Dr Teo Aik Howe

Using a pooled saliva testing strategy in screening schoolchildren and staff for Covid-19 is a feasible solution.

Our children have been trying to cope with online classes for more than a year thus far. Most agree that this is a poor substitute for in-person classes and the school learning environment.

Academic achievements, along with their physical and mental health, have deteriorated as a result of being on-screen, at home most of the time.

Unfortunately our last attempt at reopening schools in March-April 2021 quickly led to a spike in Covid-19 infections despite significant (and valiant) efforts by teachers and school authorities to maintain SOPs. Nobody has been able to confirm that infections amongst schoolchildren contributed to this current spike, but the data is compelling; a few days ago, the Health Minister announced that a total of 82,341 children have been infected in Malaysia from January 2020 until May 2021. 

Of this, 54,253 are of school-going age, and 8,237 in pre-school age groups. Previous data showed that the total infections of Covid-19 in Malaysian children for the whole of 2020 was only 8,369 cases, which merely highlights how much the problem has escalated this year.

What remains unseen and unreported is the degree of infections in teachers and other school staff. An internal survey suggested that for every 100 students, 10 to 15 teachers are infected as well.

Although the exact mode of infection may not be clear, it is worthwhile to note that infections amongst schoolchildren have devastating impacts on the family, namely the high-risk elderly within the household. 

Sadly, although the elderly may have been compliant with SOPs and avoiding going out throughout the last year, they may still get infected from their school-going children or grandchildren.

This tragedy is set to repeat itself if we fail to learn from our previous experiences.

This MCO therefore is not merely a circuit breaker for community and workplace infections; but it should give us an opportunity to review how we are going to reopen our schools, but safely.

To be clear, reopen them we must, for the impact of Covid-19 is not merely restricted to economics and health.

First, we must start off with a widespread testing strategy — one that looks more at screening and surveillance of the school population, but with costs and available capacity in mind.

In this regard, using a strategy for pooled saliva testing in screening schoolchildren and staff is a feasible solution; one which has already been implemented by the Penang Safe team for industry workers.

Using larger pooled samples, the costs per student can be brought down significantly to the point where it can be repeated on a regular surveillance-mode basis.

It works like this. A child will give a saliva sample, which is pooled with others in a group and testing using the highly sensitive rt-PCR test.

Parents and school authorities will be informed about the group results, whether negative or positive, within a day or two.

Groups with negative results are cleared to attend school, while groups with positive results will need to arrange for further testing to identify the specific individual(s) who are positive.

Imagine this — for the cost of less than RM100 per child, your child, schoolmates and teachers, can be tested before the reopening of school, and on a regular basis every few weeks, until the end of the 2021 school year.

As a parent, you will be comforted in knowing that everybody is tested regularly, positive groups will be isolated immediately and that decisions on school reopening (or closing temporarily) shall be based on scientific testing, and not on arbitrary measures based on fear, or the lack of.

It is time to relook at the reopening of schools, safely.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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