12 Jan 2022

Delaying school reopening could cause more harm than Covid-19 - paediatricians

10:54 am on 12 January 2022

Paediatricians warn most children would suffer more from widespread school closures than any possible exposure to coronavirus in the classroom.

Happy kids at elementary school

Photo: 123RF

As paediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrive ahead of next week's rollout for five to 11 year olds, University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig called for a delayed start to the school year to buy more time to vaccinate the country's children.

Kvalsvig said the highly-transmissable Omicron variant had triggered an avalanche of infections in children overseas, and there were concerns about "post-acute effects" like Long Covid on children.

But other health experts say classroom closures should be measure of a "last resort" because they would disproportionately harm vulnerable kids.

Rotorua Hospital paediatrician Danny de Lore said most children would suffer if term one started later.

"They're potentially more harmed by missing out on school and having school closures than they would be by direct infection or outbreaks of Covid," Dr de Lore said.

"There may be a role for temporary closures of schools where there's a local outbreak, but as a general rule we're really concerned that if this was a nationwide delay [of] opening schools, there would be a lot of children who it would really have a big negative impact on."

Dr de Lore, who also chairs the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' Indigenous Child Health Working Group, said the risk of Covid-19 spread in schools could be mitigated by high vaccination rates, adequate ventilation, social distancing, and potentially masks for older children.

University of Otago professor Peter McIntyre argued the risks of school closures were much greater than the risks posed by Covid-19.

"The harm to children from lack of access to school is going to be far more significant, particularly for more disadvantaged children, than any possible exposure to Covid which can be managed in the school setting," he said.

"To make a call for delaying a return to school just doesn't make any sense to me. I think it should be a last resort."

As for concerns about the effects of the virus on children, Immunisation Advisory Centre medical director Nikki Turner said children were at lower risk of severe disease.

"Even having a single dose will offer our children pretty good protection. I don't think there is a need to delay the start of the school year," Dr Turner said.

Ninety percent of New Zealand children aged 12 to 15 are now fully vaccinated.

Canterbury Primary Principals Association president Sandy Hastings said schools expected more guidance about managing Covid-19 outbreaks before the start of term one.

"All of the school staff are vaccinated, they'll all be coming up to getting their boosters soon. We will have to trust that the majority of our children will get vaccinated as well," she said.

Christchurch mother of three Nicole McLean said the school routine was important and she would not welcome a return to remote learning.

"One of our children has special needs and so being able to continue with the school year is really important for our wellbeing. It just gives us a few more options for respite," she said.

McLean said she was yet to decide whether to vaccinate her children, aged six and eight.

"We're still a bit uncertain, just because I'm not sure of the long-term effects. We're vaccinated and we're happy to put ourselves in that position, but the responsibility feels a bit different when it's your children."

Covid-19 duty minister Grant Robertson said schools would reopen as planned at this stage, but the government was constantly reviewing its Covid-19 response in light of Omicron.

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