The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are causing great concern among Israeli public health experts and pediatricians at the Hadassah University Medical Center and Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
In an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Education Minister Yoav Galant and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, the senior experts wrote that “The corona plague is expected to stay with us for a long time to come and requires a sustainable policy regarding the education of Israeli children.”
There have been ongoing reports that idleness of children and teens away from school has led to addiction to smartphone, TV and computer screens; dependence on tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and even laughing gas; severe boredom, lack of sleep, loneliness and depression; family violence; a severe decline in educational level and more.
“The right to education has been a basic right and has also been mandatory in Israeli law since 1949,” wrote the Interdisciplinary Team for Children and Corona of Hadassah and the Hebrew University, including Prof. David Chinitz, Prof. Ora Paltiel, Prof. Amnon Lahad, Prof. Orly Manor, Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit and others.
They continued that “Israeli children have been locked up in their homes for much longer than their peers in most OECD countries. It should be remembered that even between the three closures, the education system operated in a very partial manner and instruction from a distance can’t be compared to classroom instruction. We learned from the media that there is again a short-term outline for reopening schools that does not serve as a long-term solution. The lack of a long- harms Israeli children and deprives them of the right to education. This right should be at the forefront of national priorities unrelated to their parents’ right to earn a living or the needs of the economy.”
As experts in various fields of medicine and public health, “we have consistently sought to influence policymakers to balance the narrow approach to curbing illness and mortality from Corona by considering the broad implications of the epidemic, particularly when it comes to children. We insisted that the decisions of the political echelon must be based on reliable and comprehensive information. Since the beginning of the epidemic, we have advocated a careful, safe and monitored return to the educational frameworks while making possible and important changes to reduce overcrowding in classrooms in order to reduce infection and allow for academic continuity. We have warned of the possible negative impact of closing educational frameworks on children’s health and unfortunately our concerns about its suitability and today it can be stated with certainty that the prolonged absence from educational frameworks has devastating effects.”
They continued that “empirical data show that mental distress, eating and sleeping disorders, alcohol use and social isolation are not just theoretical implications of a policy that ignores children’s needs but its actual consequences. We also know that the acquisition of education is one of the most important social factors that determine the health of the population. Thus, preventing proper education from millions of children and impairing their development are likely to have severe long-term economic and health consequences.”
The experts also wrote that they were “aware of the severity of the epidemic and its consequences. Some of us are directly involved in the care of patients in the hospital and in the community and know well of the burden that the COVID-19 plague placed on the health care system. We do not underestimate the risks to children who will be left without the possibility of being vaccinated, even when new variants appear. We are well aware that in the third wave, children became more infected, even during quarantine. However, much to our delight, most children are still protected from severe clinical consequences of the virus as well as late comorbidity.”
Children and teens should not be blamed for transmitting the disease in the community, they went on. “Throughout the epidemic, there has been a tendency to treat the child population as a threatening group and refuse to recognize that they are a vulnerable and harmed group. Although there is a possibility that children will infect those around them (such as educational staff and family members), decisionmakers had enough time during the last closure (and previous closures) to formulate measures to reduce these risks and create an appropriate educational routine, while addressing children’s educational, social and emotional needs.” But that was not implemented, they wrote.
“We, who have been following government policy for the past year, can no longer stand in the way of the distorted priorities, according to which approval for a takeaway from restaurants and cafes precedes the opening of education frameworks. Children, unfortunately, have no lobby, no voice in the media and no right to vote, hence they cannot influence their fate. It is our professional duty to cry out for them…
“We call on the Israeli government to act immediately to ensure a safe environment and an educational continuum that will enable a study routine with physical presence until the end of the epidemic and thereafter. Educational security is an integral part of national security,” they concluded.
UNESCO of the United Nations stated recently that two-thirds of the academic year has been lost on average worldwide due to COVID-19 school closures. Over 800 million pupils – more than half the world’s pupil population – still face significant disruptions to their education, ranging from full school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in another 48 countries,
The duration of closures varies greatly by region, from as many as 5 months (20 weeks) of complete nation-wide closures on average in Latin America and the Caribbean countries, to 2.5 months (10 weeks) in Europe and just one month in Oceania.
Similar regional variations are observed when accounting for localized closures: The duration of complete and localized closures exceeded seven months (29 weeks) on average in Latin America and the Caribbean compared to the global average of 5.5 months (22 weeks). Schools are now fully open in 101 countries.
UNESCO, which promotes education, science and culture around the world, added that “prolonged and repeated closures of educational institutions are taking a rising psychosocial toll on pupils, increasing learning losses and the risk of dropping out, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable. Full school closures must therefore be a last resort and reopening them safely a priority.”
Meanwhile, in a separate statement, Prof. Tzachi Grossman, chairman of the Israel Pediatrics Association, said: “Teachers and kindergarten teachers are in a position to save children. All teachers and kindergarten teachers in Israel must take advantage of every moment until the decision to open the system and get vaccinated immediately. According to the latest reports, only about half of educators in schools and kindergarten teachers have gone to be vaccinated against COVID-19, largely due to apathy among young people and fake news on the social media.
Grossman called for the launch of Operation “Teachers for Life” – a speedy and effective vaccination process in which all teaching staff and kindergartens that have not been vaccinated will do so immediately. “A combination of vaccinated teams and keeping masks and instructions will speed up the long-awaited opening of the system. We pediatricians were in the front line of getting vaccinated. Now it is your turn, as those who stand in the front line of educators.”