As millions of children returned to classrooms this week amid growing concerns over a possible third wave of Covid-19 hitting Bangladesh, experts feared that any laxity in maintaining health protocols and lack of awareness on the part of guardians can put the kids at risk of infections.

They said children in the areas where the virus infection rate is still over 15 percent are highly vulnerable to the deadly virus. The experts rang the alarm bell as the extremely transmissible Delta variant has been taking its toll on children in different countries, including the USA, where children went back to schools in person.

Based on the first week's observations, the performances of most of the school authorities still look good when it comes to maintaining health safety rules. However, the guardians seem unaware in many cases of the looming danger of the pandemic since they were seen crowding outside of different schools, even many of them without masks, risking their own health and that of their children.

Talking to our sister newsagency UNB, the analysts said the authorities have to ensure that health guidelines are consistently followed without any laxity.

Besides, they said, the school authorities should motivate the guardians to maintain social distancing and health safety rules when they gather outside of the gates.

More than 5 million children have tested positive for Covid-19 in the USA since the start of the pandemic. Of them, 750,000 confirmed paediatric cases were detected last month while 52,000 in the first week of this month alone following the reopening of schools, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association.

An outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 that is thought to have begun in a primary school at Putian in China's southeast continues to grow, prompting authorities to impose measures, including travel restrictions and school closures, Al Jazeera reported this week.

The suspected source of the outbreak was the parent of a child at the Putou Primary School, who returned to China from Singapore.

Ensuring strict monitoring

Renowned scientist Dr Bijon Kumar Sil, of Gono Bishwabidyalay's Microbiology department, said the infection among kids increased in some countries initially after the reopening of the educational institutions.

He said Bangladesh also can face a similar problem if health safety rules are not properly maintained as long as the virus does not come under control.

Dr Bijon thinks most adult and older populations in the country gained antibodies by encountering the virus or receiving vaccines. "But our children had been in their houses for a long time and no study has so far been conducted to see whether the antibody has developed among the kids. So, we must remain careful about their health and safety."

He said the teachers and school authorities should strictly monitor whether any student is taking part in classes with Covid symptoms. "If the teachers find any child feeling unwell, he/she should be sent back home immediately. "If possible, temperature screening of students should be conducted every day by the school authorities."

Dr Bijon said an infected student can be the source of an outbreak of the virus in any educational institution. "So, if any student is found positive for the virus or with the virus symptoms, then the entire school should be closed for a week."

The expert said the coronavirus is not going away from the world any time soon as it will remain like the flu. "Vaccines are the only means to lessen the severity of its infection or gain herd immunity. "As long as our children are not given vaccines, they'll remain at risk of the virus."

100% masking matters

In absence of vaccines for kids, Dr Bijon said masks are the main protective gear for them. "So, no one, including the children and teachers, should be allowed to enter educational institutions without masks."

Public health expert MH Chowdhury (Lenin), chairman of the medicine department at the Health and Hope Hospital, said the USA has been experiencing an "exponential" rise in infections among children following the reopening of the schools.

"The infection rate among kids is very high in the US states where people have apathy to masking up while it is low where people wear masks properly and follow the health safety rules. So, masking up is the effective defence against Covid and all schools should remain strict to masking," he said.

Lenin said no one should think the coronavirus has become weak as the infection rate has dropped significantly. "The coronavirus can spread fast again causing the third wave in the case of any negligence in maintaining health protocols."

Role of Guardians

Lenin said the guardians need to play a very responsible role in saving themselves from virus and their children as well.

He said parents must ensure that their children are going to schools by wearing masks. "They also should sanitise the hands of children before going to school and after returning from it."

The expert also said the guardians should not send their kids to schools if they have any Covid symptoms. "Children should be given balanced food, sufficient vegetables and seasonal fresh fruits for boosting their immunity."

Besides, he said, the guardians should strictly follow the health safety rules and maintain social distancing when they remain outside homes, including in front of the school gates.

Lenin said the government can conduct mobile courts to punish the guardians who gather in front of different schools violating health protocols. "If some guardians are fined or kept in custody for several hours, others will be careful."

Virus prevention guidelines

Infectious disease expert Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed, a former director (Disease Control) at the DGHS, said kids are at greater risk in the areas where infection of Delta variant is still more than 15 percent.

"Our children are to be vaccinated. But, guardians are crowding in front of the gates of schools violating the health and safety and social distancing rules," he said.

Dr Be-Nazir said the school authorities still look sincere about maintaining the health safety rules, but the challenge is to maintain its consistency. "So, we need to prepare a national infection prevention, control and practice guidelines for saving children from the virus infection and keep the educational institution open for a long time."

Besides, he said, every educational institution should have a committee to implement this guideline properly and strictly.

A changed context

Many children and youth will have experienced increased violence, mental and emotional stress, during the period of school closures. Initial projections estimate substantial increases in exposure to physical, sexual and/or emotional violence as a result of COVID-19 quarantine as well as disruptions to programs designed to address the existing and ongoing issues of violence against children, which will likely have especially affected those children already at higher risk of experiencing violence, including children with disabilities, girls, and other often marginalized groups. Where learning has moved to online and other distance learning platforms, children may have been exposed to increased risks of online violence, including cyberbullying and child sexual exploitation and abuse.

According to Unicef, access to support services, including psychosocial support as well as sexual and reproductive health services, will have been severely limited during lockdown and social distancing measures. Other children may be facing additional anxiety as they return to school as previous factors that made school unsafe for some learners will not have disappeared. Children who were targets of bullying and harassment may have felt safer and better able to learn remotely as they did not have to face the daily dread and anxieties around facing their bullies at school, and risk factors for experiencing bullying and other forms of violence at school may have increased. Some children may be dealing with the direct consequences of the disease as well as experience increased stigmatization associated with COVID-19, including those who have family members that have been affected, which could lead to increased bullying.

Factors that often keep children out of school will have been exacerbated, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Increased absenteeism and dropouts affect the ability of schools to provide an entry point for violence prevention and response. This will especially affect those that are already often left behind, including girls, refugees, children with disabilities, indigenous children, those in lower income families, those living in rural or remote areas or in crisis-affected countries as they will be more likely to fall behind with less access to digital platforms for learning.

In addition, girls will have experienced heightened expectations of duties and responsibilities at home, affecting their ability to keep up with learning, while rates of early and unintended pregnancies will have increased. For example, approximately 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the crisis has passed. This further entrenches gender gaps in education and may lead to an even further increased risk of violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, early and unintended pregnancy, and child, early and forced marriage.

Absenteeism or non-return to school can be directly related to a student's experience of violence, exploitation and neglect. Child protection issues are a factor in keeping children away from school, including child labour that prevents children from attending, violence at school, including harassment and discrimination, that creates fear, or a child could be kept away from school to hide the physical signs that he or she has been abused at home or elsewhere, or that she is pregnant.

On the other hand, teachers and school staff are often at the front lines of identifying and responding to violence against children, so that violence that happens in the home or community may not only be more likely to remain unnoticed when children don't attend school, but children may also be less likely to receive the support they need.

Governments should build awareness of the changed context and learners' needs into reopening plans, recognizing the different experiences of different groups of children, and preparing and supporting education systems to reopen safely. Just as violence prevention and the provision of safe learning environments was a priority before COVID-19, it should remain a focus in any plans and efforts to reopen schools safely.

Not a uniform story

As students across the country returned to classrooms after one of the world's longest Covid-19 closures, many of them missed their peers with officials concerned in Kurigram fearing that at least 50,000 children may have dropped out due to early marriage and poverty in the district.

Teachers and officials concerned gave this observation to UNB as the schools reopened on Sunday after nearly 18 months amid a festive atmosphere and calls for maintaining Covid-19 health guidelines.

District Secondary Education Officer Shamsul Alam said: "We inspected five schools in Kurigram Sadar on Sunday. Around 13% of students have dropped out of these institutions during the school closure. As many as 63 girls were victims of child marriage."

According to "our assumptions, the total number of school dropouts in the district would be around 50,000," he said, adding: "We have directed the individuals concerned to present an exact figure as soon as possible."

After a reality check at the schools in different upazilas of the district including Ulipur and Kurigram, the UNB correspondent reported that the number of absentees was 20-25% on average in all the institutions.

The correspondent added that most of the students had dropped out due to economic reasons and a significant amount due to early marriage.

After talking to parents, teachers and other related individuals, the reporter estimated that as many as 91 girls were married off from Kurigram Girls High School, Ghogadaha Maleka Begum Girls High School, Kanthalbari Girls High School and Barullah Girls High School.

A teacher at Kurigram Girls High School, seeking anonymity, said 30 girls, including 12 of the 10th grade, had gotten married.

Jannatun, an SSC student of Jatrapur Girls High School in Kurigram Sadar upazila said: "Five of my classmates have been married off by their parents."

Irene, another 10th grader, said: "Our parents treated us as if we were a burden that needed to be offloaded as soon as possible. We were not allowed to go outside the confines of our homes. Taking private tuition was not even an option."

"Although many of my friends wanted to study and had big dreams, they became victims of child marriage," she added.

The acting headmaster of the school, Abdul Mannan, said: "If we observe for a week, we will know how many children have dropped out. We will find out the reasons behind this."

Additional reporting by A.R. Jahangir

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