Why students can do without a second shutdown

Europeans agree the need to protect the education system from the disruptive impact of a new open-ended second shutdown

Graduates take a selfie before the start of the University of Georgia's rescheduled Spring Commencement at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. The ceremony was moved from the spring due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
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Across the world, schools and universities are prime spots for the coronavirus to spread. But if nerves hold over for the next few weeks, the young could provide the route out of the crisis.

Few can doubt that a second wave of the pandemic has struck Europe. As the number of infections soar into the tens of thousands daily, different countries are setting their own priorities.

Germany's objective is to keep the infection rate suppressed to ensure the country’s test and trace system is not overwhelmed. One of Berlin's goals is an effective detection system that is able to establish how many people have been exposed to an outbreak. This is no mean feat in a country of more than 80 million, and such a detection system is worth defending.

For other countries, the priority is to ensure community transmission remains controlled enough to keep spare capacity in health care systems. If patients were to not receive intensive care treatment as a result of too high a demand for beds, it would result in a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite different agendas to tackle the second wave, one area where Europeans agree is the need to protect the education system from the disruptive impact of an open-ended second shutdown.

The closure of schools earlier in spring is widely acknowledged to have been deeply damaging. Not only are pupils harmed by the lack of teaching but parents' work lives are upended, causing short-term economic damage.

Schools and universities should continue in-person teaching

Some authorities are extending the upcoming autumn half term as a result of the spike in infections. Two weeks, not one, is seen as minimally harmful to the economy, as many parents were anyway planning to take annual leave. There is no suggestion that closures could be extended beyond that — something that was a threat as recently as August.

Schoolchildren in Europe are mercifully not succumbing to Covid-19 in anything close to the numbers that have been seen among the elderly.

Students of the eleventh grade sit with face masks in a classroom of the Phoenix high school in Dortmund, western Germany, on August 12, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Schools in the western federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia re-started under strict health guidelines after the summer holidays. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

The massive outbreak among university students after the start of term has fed into interest in Sweden-style strategies of differentiating the lockdown across the age brackets.

Students contract the virus after moving from their family homes. While at university many live in distinct cohorts like halls of residence.

In university towns there are sharp drop offs between districts that have large student accommodation blocks and neighbouring districts where the students aren’t renting.

Students obviously go to shops and travel on public transport. But interaction with the wider public remains limited. They are not living in multi-generational settings. They are quarantined more easily. Indeed, the large-scale testing regimens put in place by the universities has uncovered cases that would never have been registered.

The statistical impact is already significant but the implications are not as clear cut. The path of the pandemic and how it will play out centres on whether or not the virus will slow as it saturates the younger age bracket.

A group of scientists have issued what has become known as the Barrington Declaration. This calls for a different set of building blocks towards the lockdown. It was signed by more than 6,000 medics and scientists.

One point is that the risk from coronavirus is 1,000 times higher for the old and infirm than the youngest. The risk of hospitalisation for people aged over 85 is more than 13 times that faced by an 18-year-old who contracts the disease, according to the US Centres for Disease Control. The risk of death is an astounding 630 times higher in older people.

Graduates turn their tassels during the University of Georgia's rescheduled Spring Commencement at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. The ceremony was moved from the spring due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

An alternative course of action could be for the young and those who could be ascertained to be low risk to be allowed to continue to work in normal conditions. Schools and universities should continue in-person teaching.

The older and vulnerable could be targeted with support for isolation, including home shopping deliveries and being given guidance on measures like only meeting family outside, not indoors.

The Declaration has obvious flaws. It would mean that up to 16 million people would have to isolate during the crunch period when the virus spiked, as one British MP calculated last week.

Taking a base case of half the student age population and younger contracting the virus and just five per cent of the pension-age population testing positive, the MP’s calculations were that more than 1 mn would be hospitalised and there would be an additional 90,000 deaths.

While numbers like these can seem very definite, there is no comparable process for the cost of the lockdowns on mental and physical health, as a result of withdrawn health services and social isolation.

Economics does not have the same credibility as epidemiology. Yet, both fields rely on making judgements to construct extrapolation models. The result of this mismatch in expertise is that policymakers face unbearable pressure when infections spike.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National