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Dr Suresh Birajdar

Should children be vaccinated before schools reopen?

It has been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in our lives and the virus continues to haunt us. The cases are on a decline after the second wave, the vaccination drive for those above 18 is on, but educational institutions are yet to open. There have been talks about reopening schools in a phased manner but no concrete decision has been taken yet.

During the pandemic, a large number of children across the country missed out on in-class schooling, learning virtually since March last year. “Schools are not only important from an educational point of view, but for building a child’s character for social interaction and behaviour,” says Dr Suresh Birajdar, neonatologist and paediatrician, Motherhood Hospital, Kharghar, Mumbai. “The physical school offers much more over what virtual classes can do and is pivotal for children’s development.”

Schooling is fundamental to adolescent and child development; children’s social skills and mental health, as well as academic success, is being affected now because of closure of schools. According to Dr Rahul Nagpal, director and head of paediatrics, Fortis Hospital Vasant Kunj, Delhi, “If we can vaccinate enough people and, depending on the safety protocols we take in individual schools, we should be in a position to open schools as soon as possible.”

The ministry of health and family welfare and local government bodies are closely watching Covid cases and other epidemiological data to come up with a feasible plan for opening up schools. If schools do open, strict surveillance, social distancing norms and monitoring children’s health will be key. But this raises an important question–should children be vaccinated before schools open up?

Are schools ready?

Schools need to identify safe ways to have children of all ages return, even if in a phased manner. That means implementing protocols that allow for a hybrid model (reduced number of students in school campus every day). “It’s our responsibility as school leaders to set up systems and protocols to enable students and staff to be as safe as possible in the present situation,” says Peter M.J. Murphy, head of school, OGC Campus, Oberoi International School, Mumbai. The Oberoi International School’s first priority is to bring back the youngest students–some of whom have now missed out on 18 months of critical socialisation. “These children are unable to spend six hours a day behind the computer screen, nor do we want them to. They need to be learning through discovery with their peers,” adds Murphy. The second group the school wants to bring back is the oldest lot that desperately need the richness of learning opportunities offered in classrooms, laboratories and studios. He adds, “Once we have demonstrated that we can manage the needs of these two groups, we could seek to bring the other students back to school. Experience from around the world has shown that reducing the number of students who can actually be onsite at any point in time and creating bubbles of students will help us quickly isolate students or staff if needed, allowing the rest to work normally.”

Considering vaccinations having crossed 43 crore in India and its continued administration, it is being said that children are in much safer environments at home and elsewhere and it is time to welcome them back to schools. According to Ajeenkya D.Y. Patil, president, Ajeenkya DY Patil University and chairman, Ajeenkya DY Patil Group, “In anticipation of schools opening up, we have put together appropriate protocols with a lot of focus on vaccination.”

Vaccination before reopening?

Trials are on for vaccines for those below 18 and are expected to be available soon. There have been developments globally and in India on this front. Says Patil, “However, we don’t think we should wait till a vaccine for children is available. As the vaccination of adults is on the rise, the environment for children has been made safer.”

The coronavirus, like any virus, survives by seeking hosts it can live in. Over the past 18 months, the virus has mutated several times and can continue to thrive and spread. “Once the WHO has agreed on a suitable vaccination for children, I would strongly recommend families take advantage of it. We do not think twice about recommending the influenza vaccination as an annual event. If families are educated about the risks and benefits, I am confident that most of them would wish to protect their children,” says Murphy.

It’s the need of the hour to know how the vaccine works in the case of children or if there are any adverse effects. After knowing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, children can get inoculated. According to Dr Birajdar, “Like adults, children, too, transmit the Coronavirus to others if they are infected and can be a symptomatic. Each child infected with the virus provides a chance for the virus to mutate and create a variant that might prove more dangerous or resistant to available vaccines and treatment.” Dr Nagpal adds, “Vaccinating those above 18, and if possible, those below 18 should be prioritised.”