Amid concern about whether the island’s schools should remain open following the confirmation of two COVID-19 cases at one secondary institution, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is urging authorities not to close schools.
Director of the Department of Communicable Diseases Dr Marcos Espinal said with very low numbers and COVID-19 protocols in place, there was no need to go that route.
In fact, he told an online media briefing on Wednesday that school closures should be the last resort for Barbados and other countries in the Americas.
Responding to a question specifically about Barbados, the PAHO official said it was important that authorities keep the lines of communication with parents and teachers open.
“One of the recommendations is that if there are only one or two cases, or very low numbers, the schools can [remain] open because education is really critical for the children,” said Espinal.
Earlier this week, two students from The Ellerslie School tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the closure of that school for at least 14 days to ensure cleaning and sanitisation there.
However, reports have since emerged of some concerned teachers calling for all schools to be closed and for a move to full online teaching. There have also been reports of some businesses expressing concern about staff members who have children attending The Ellerslie School.
But Espinal insisted that as long as measures of physical distancing, wearing of masks and washing of hands were being practised there was no need for alarm or closure
of the learning institutions.
He also said it was critical for authorities to constantly engage with the teachers and parents and keep them abreast of developments.
“The schools can be maintained open except if there is – and there are clear recommendations based on categories – cluster transmission, community transmission or known transmission,” the PAHO official said.
“The good thing is to watch and monitor, but if there is no increased sustained transmission there is no need to close schools; it should be the last resort.”
Speaking more widely on the matter through an interpreter, Espinal warned that closing schools could affect learning since not all students had access to equipment or the Internet to participate in online classes.
Pointing out that PAHO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have issued recommendations and tips regarding the opening of schools, he said new recommendations were again issued in September in conjunction with UNICEF.
“We issued guidelines, recommending schools’ reopening or shutdown should be based on a risk-based analysis at the local level. That is to say, at the community level, because the entire country does not need to shut down their schools unless there is intense community transmission,” Espinal explained.
“We acknowledge that virtual learning is not available in all our communities, so it is important to do that risk assessment so that if it is possible to open some schools where there is no community transmission and no such risks, then schools can reopen with the specific recommendations such as keeping social distancing, expanding the available spaces in the school and having increased ventilation.”
President of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) Pedro Shepherd has already advised that principals and teachers stay away from making rash decisions independent of officials from the Ministries of Health and Education.
He urged teachers, however, to be vigilant and ensure that students were following the protocols of wearing masks throughout the day, regularly washing their hands and practising physical distancing.
In her weekly update during Wednesday’s online briefing, PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne again called for unity among countries in the fight against the global health pandemic.
While expressing concern about “spikes” in countries that previously managed the spread, including Cuba and Jamaica, she said “in fact, over the past 60 days, 11 countries in the Caribbean have moved from moderate to intense transmission, which is a concerning development as countries reopen air space”.
Warning that transmission remained “very active”, Dr Etienne also pointed out that “the virus is spreading in new and different ways”.
She further explained that in the Americas, the data showed that COVID-19 was “exacting a larger toll on young people more than we saw earlier in the pandemic. More than half of a million children and adolescents in our region have been infected and these numbers continue to rise”.
The PAHO Director said she was also concerned about potential spread of the virus to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, if protocols were not followed.
“So let me urge people of all ages to continue to wear masks, practise social distancing to protect themselves and avoid exposing others,” she said, adding that migrants were also at risk of contracting the virus.
The good news, Dr Etienne said, was that the rate of severe COVID-19 cases had fallen in the region, with fewer people being hospitalised and fewer requiring intensive care.
“This is due, in part, to our growing knowledge of this virus and how to manage critically ill patients. It is also credit to the work of governments across our region that acted quickly to expand laboratory networks, increase hospital beds and hire and train healthcare workers,” she said.