By Maya Uccheddu, WBP Executive Committee member
Note: This text is based on a WBP Webinar hosted in Italian and summarized in this blog. You can read the Italian summary and view the webinar recording here.
Should schools be reopened using precise approaches?
What is the children’s role in this pandemic?
What kind of damage are they experiencing from the lack of education and interaction with their peers?
Could digital teaching be the panacea for this issue?
Webinar: “The effect of social isolation on children” (in Italian)
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To read a transcript-style write-up of the webinar in English, click here.
Webinar Recap (in English)
What happened to the French boy who got infected skiing in the French Alps is emblematic. Although very mild, his symptoms only showed when he came back to school. Tracing his 72 ski and school contacts revealed that none of them got infected.
A study performed in Iceland, the only nation that has carried out a mass screening among the population, shows that none of the 842 children screened contracted the infection, despite the virus infecting the rest of the adult population.
The same data emerges from the study carried out by Dr. Crisanti on the entire population of Vo, in Italy. Among the pediatric population, 217 children aged between 0 and 10 years, none tested positive for the virus – nor were they symptomatic. This was despite 13 of them living in homes with infected adult individuals. Overall, in Italy, children were 1.9% of total cases and 3% of total deaths.
Data from the United States on 150,000 people reveals that only 1.7% of the infected are in the age group between 0 and 18 years, a very minimal percentage.
What we know for sure is that if and when children get sick, symptoms tend to be non-existent (the children are asymptomatic) in most cases or the symptoms tend to be very mild – even milder than in the case of a flu. However, it should be specified that the child can become infected as shown by studies carried out among the Chinese population. Now, what is missing is direct evidence of how much children transmit the disease between themselves and adults.
The available data are only deductible from observations in retrospect on the spread of the virus in the community. In this sense, the Robert Koch Institute has recently made it known that there are very few outbreaks within school communities, while the rest of the many cases are in hospital settings, nursing homes, factories, and restaurants.
The direct observation confirms the above: until now, despite nursery schools and kindergartens for children up to the age of 5 remaining open in countries such as Switzerland or Norway during the lockdown (and moreover, the lockdown having been partial compared to countries such as Italy and Spain), no outbreaks occurred in these facilities.
While Northern European countries have given priority to the reopening of schools (first of all Germany, as also suggested by the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina), Italy is contemplating a closure of schools until September and then it’s considering a partial restart by delegating part of the teaching to digital schools.
But is this the correct strategy to follow, especially considering that the virus moves differently from region to region? What happens to children’s brains when they are confined to social isolation for a long time?
An American study reports that children who miss school for a period that lasts approximately the same amount of time as the lockdown, suffer from it: They will have forgotten the entire math program learned until then because by not practicing what they learned and learning enough new things, children forget.
Translated into future economic and life terms, and based on pre-existing studies, we can say that if a child loses six months of school compared to his peers, he will have a future income 7 percent lower for the rest of his life (life-long income). We will therefore create a huge future economic gap between Italy and the rest of Northern Europe.
Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to think of precision medicine measures for the management of the school reopening? First of all, to reopen primary and middle schools, because for children and teenagers, contact with their peers is fundamental for a correct psychophysical development. Children learn from children. Kids need kids to develop their own concept of themselves.
In addition, digital learning is arduous for children and in any case prevents the development of the social skills that are the distinctive element of humans of the future, where social intelligence will be valid and critical as a value-add beyond digital intelligence. Digital teaching is also congenial to the smartest and wealthiest children. For the less proficient and for those who do not have the economic resources to live in the digital world, there will not be the same possibility. The social gap will therefore increase, and we will leave behind the children who need to be constantly motivated by their teachers.
We should then apply precision strategies in monitoring possible infections in school environments, examining cohorts and also studying them at random to see if and how the virus moves among children. That way, we can establish if and what the optimal containment measures to be taken are, while applying precision strategies for specific realities. Can we compare Basilicata to Lombardy in terms of the number of infected? If we keep the realities separate, it is conceivable to reopen in certain regions now.
The future of our children and therefore our future must be managed with great caution, and in this sense it’s the precision medicine approach that provides the right solution, at the right time, to the right people also as prevention, and should serve as a guide. The concept of one-size-fits-all is obsolete and risky in medicine, even in the context of a pandemic.
This is the precious work done by the Women’s Brain Project that deals with precision medicine, starting from the analysis of the differences between sex and gender, and on the basis of these, implementing precise and specific solutions.