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Concerns grow over continued closure of schools

all primary schools and kindergartens to close in greece amid pandemic
MPs called for a special protocol to record psychological problems so that they could be tackled in an effective manner

US study shows classrooms not a hotbed for Covid transmissions

By Antigoni Pitta

With students of all ages having had almost a year of fragmented schooling, parents and experts are increasingly concerned about the long-term repercussions of the pandemic on the emotional and educational development of children.

These concerns have become even more strident in the light of recent studies in the US that have shown that classrooms are not hotbeds for Covid-19 infection if health protocols are followed, strengthening the case for reopening schools.

While there had been some evidence of in-school transmission, “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in an opinion piece on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network at the end of January.

“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of Covid-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the CDC said. On Friday they issued guidance for the reopening of schools in the US.

Yet February 1’s partial reopening of schools in Cyprus concerned only the around 70,000 primary pupils and those in the final year of secondary schools, leaving thousands of students stuck at home to struggle with online learning with no end in sight. These groups have not been in school since before Christmas.

“We have been putting pressure on the government to reopen schools since they announced they would be relaxing measures,” Pancyprian Confederation of Parents Associations of secondary education president Charalambos Dionysiou told the Sunday Mail.

Dionysiou explained that while they are happy graduating students are back in school, parents were hoping all grades would be returning by February 15 but now realise that it might take much longer than that.

Distance learning cannot continue indefinitely as it does not offer the same quality as in-person schooling, he said. “While it makes up for in-person teaching, it can and should never replace the interaction pupils have with their friends at school, or the memories they make.”

Christos Kyprianou, a psychiatrist who specialises in treating children and teenagers, told the Sunday Mail that extended school closures could have long-term effects not only on children’s learning, but also on their emotional development.

For teenagers, social interaction is very important and not being around people their age can be detrimental, Kyprianou said. “It is devastating for a teenager not being able to be around their friends, to interact, to talk, to have fun.”

At the same time, the prolonged use of electronics could lead to other issues such as videogame addiction, cyberbullying and in some cases, substance abuse. “At this age, children are more susceptible to outside influences and trends, and without the positive influence of school they might go down dark paths,” he explained.

All children have the right to education, but while distance learning has accounted for that – partially at least – having to stay at home might be depriving some of other rights, such as the right to safety. Domestic violence is another issue aggravated by the pandemic, as there is no escape from such conditions if someone is forced to stay at home all the time, Kyprianou said.

School can often be an escape from home, the children’s rights commissioner Despo Michaelidou told the Sunday Mail. “We also have to think about the children that come from lower income families. Conditions at home might not be ideal, and there is no way to know if they have enough food, for example.”

Disabled children, those with learning difficulties and those whose parents don’t speak Greek are even worse off, she said, as they may not be able to access sufficient help while learning from home.

An online seminar conducted on Thursday by associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Cyprus, Monica Shiakou, focused on the importance of helping returning primary school pupils become more resilient to stress. The seminar’s aim was to equip teachers with strategies to spot behavioural changes in children, and to address them in a constructive way.

Shiakou said that for many children, school provides a stable environment and a routine, which is key to developing resilience. She suggested that teachers should create the right environment to discuss the pandemic, yet avoiding its traumatic aspects and focusing on the importance of friendship and cooperation in hard times.

Following a House education committee meeting on Thursday, Education Minister Prodromos Prodromou said that even a partial reopening should be considered a great achievement.

“Provided we keep up this recent victory by abiding to measures, we will be able to open the rest of the schools soon,” he said, adding that the ministry is acting, as always, according to instructions from the health ministry and the advisory committee on coronavirus.

Asked whether the commissioner’s office would be intervening if schools remain closed for too long, Michaelidou said that that would depend on whether the relevant ministries’ decisions prove harmful.

“Our stance is clear: measures affecting children should be constantly reexamined, so that they are proportional to the circumstances at hand, without of course going over the appropriate limits,” she said.

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