Reopening of schools in Kathmandu Valley, a Covid-19 hotspot, raises alarmWhile local governments and schools say safety measures are in place, experts warn children may carry the disease to their grandparents who fall in the most vulnerable category.
Schools in various municipalities of Kathmandu Valley, a hotspot for Covid-19 infection, have started reopening after months of remaining shut due to government restrictions.
While schools and local governments say they have fully implemented measures to prevent the transmission of the contagious disease, doctors have warned reopening of schools could spell disaster, especially for senior citizens. Although children are at relatively low risk of developing a severe form of the infection, they could act as a medium for the virus to pass on to their grandparents, who are highly vulnerable, they caution.
“We have allowed schools to restart classes by implementing all safety measures,” Uddhav Prasad Kharel, mayor of Budhanilkantha Municipality told the Post. “Private schools have already restarted classes, and some community schools are preparing to do the same.”
The situation is similar in Tarkeshwor Municipality. “We have granted permission to schools to resume classes, as per recommendations from respective ward offices,” Rameshwor Bohara, mayor of Tarakeshwor Municipality, told the Post. “Schools came to us after holding meetings with parents, local residents and other stakeholders.”
The Ministry of Education Science and Technology has authorised local governments to decide when and how to resume schools, which were shutdown in March as part of government efforts to contain the virus.
New cases of infection have spiked after reopening of schools in Europe and America, and authorities there have shut down the schools again to control the spread of the infection.
Even as local level representatives claim permission to resume classes was granted only to schools that fulfilled all safety requirements, experts are sceptical about it as Kathmandu Valley remains a hotspot for Covid-19 infections and the disease claims more senior citizens. The exact situation of the spread of coronavirus remains unknown as authorities have given up on contact tracing.
Schools in Chandragiri Municipality have also resumed, said Lisha Nakarmi, deputy mayor. “We have allowed schools to run classes in shifts since November,” Nakarmi told the Post. “We have asked our staffers and ward representatives to check if social distancing measures are adopted in schools or not.”
Dr Mingmar Gyelgen Sherpa, former director general at the department of Health Services told the Post that the biggest risk of opening schools is that students could take the virus to their grandparents. Government figures show that more than 60 percent of people who have died of Covid-19 are above 60 years of age.
“Allowing schools to resume can't be termed a good decision, as we haven’t seen any proof that the infection rate is slowing down,”, told the Post. “Death rates among the infected elderly people are very high in our country, and even if nothing happens to children, they can pass the virus on to their grandparents.”
The decision to reopen schools has proven costly for even Humla, one of the remotest areas in Nepal, he said. “Coronavirus has spread in schools of Humla, one of the remotest and least populated areas in the country,” added Sherpa. “Allowing schools to resume could be costly for the Kathmandu Valley as it is a major hotspot for coronavirus infections—hundreds of people are still testing positive everyday.”
Other experts have also questioned the effectiveness of safety protocols being followed in schools. “Maintaining social distancing in schools is a tough ask,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, told the Post. “Children will come together while playing, while going to the toilet or eating lunch.”
But local level representatives, the Post talked to, downplayed the risk posed by coronavirus. “Weddings are taking place, people are organising feasts where hundreds are gathering in one place,” Budhanilkantha Municipality’s mayor Kharel, said. “People are behaving as if the pandemic is over.” He said that the municipality will allow everything open in the coming days.
Tarakeshwor Municipality’s mayor Bohara too said he is taking part in feasts organised in the municipality. “Due to fear of losing votes in the coming election, I have been accepting invitations from the public to attend wedding feasts,” said Bohara. “People are drinking, singing and dancing without thinking about the risk of infection. Over 500 people gather in one venue and use the same ladle.”
Doctors, however, say only those who become seriously ill and reached hospital beds or those who have lost their family members to the disease know better about the risk the virus poses.
“We should not take the risk of infection lightly,” Dr Prabhat Adhikari, infectious disease and critical care expert, told the Post. “Authorities should have waited for some time to reopen schools. They should strictly enforce safety measures, if they are allowed to resume schools.”
The number of new cases of infection has declined only after authorities reduced testing and started charging asymptomatic patients for tests, doctors said. They argue that underestimating the risk without proof will be costly for everyone. “We still have a queue of people waiting to go to intensive care units and get ventilator support, and death rates have not declined. So the risk of transmission can’t be downplayed,” Adhikari added.
Meanwhile, Lalitpur Metropolitan City held a meeting of stakeholders on Tuesday to decide whether or not to let the schools open in the metropolitan city. Ishwor Man Dangol, spokesperson for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City said that the metropolis is also holding discussions with the stakeholders and will take decisions within a few days regarding to let the school open. “We are also holding meetings with school operators and other stakeholders and will take a decision soon,” said Dangol.