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Time for students to return to schools closed for MERS

Posted June. 12, 2015 06:22,   


Around 11 percent of schools across the nation, 2,451 in total, are closed due to risk of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) contagion. All kindergartens and elementary schools in Seocho District in Seoul and elementary, middle and high schools in seven cities and districts in Gyeonggi Province including Pyeongtaek City have been shut down until today. As a new case of MERS was confirmed in Changwon of South Gyeongnam Province, 25 schools and preschools in adjacent areas are closed today. As schools are closed for an extended period, many side effects have been found, such as missing classes, insufficient management of students at schools and difficulties of childcare in double income families.

Proactive measures such as closing schools were inevitable as an infectious disease can easily and rapidly spread once outbreak occurs at schools where many students gather in groups. However, it is no longer valid to close schools as it became clear that MERS virus is not circulating in the community. No other nation closes schools or businesses because of MERS outbreak. “There has been no case in Saudi Arabia to close schools even after the number of MERS cases exceeded a thousand,” said a Saudi Arabian reporter at the conference of World Federation of Science Journalists. The reporter pointed out that closing of schools may fuel public anxiety and fear.

Rising number of schools closing must be attributable to the education authority, which made the decision to close schools based on populism. In the initial stage of the deadly virus outbreak, when the disease was only known to a fraction of the public, some parents demanded to close schools and the education authority had to accept the demand. However, education minister Hwang Woo-yea allowed closing of schools at discretion of principals despite objection from the health ministry, which denied the necessity of closing schools. Cho Hee-yeon, Superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, and Lee Jae-jeong, Superintendent of Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, took one step further to order temporary closure of schools.

“Schools have not been linked to transmission of (the virus) in the Republic of Korea or elsewhere,” said World Health Organization (WHO) mission which is studying the MERS outbreak jointly with the Korean government. The joint Korea-WHO mission urged to the government to consider reopening schools. WHO recommendation is based on scientific rationality, which needs to be respected. It is also doubtful whether closing of schools is effective in quarantine. During the period when schools have been shut down, many students have spent their time in closed spaces such as Karaoke rooms or internet cafes, or have gone to movies with friends. As school cafeterias are closed, children of low income brackets or double income families skip lunch. In many dual-career families, parents who have no one to depend on for childcare have to take a day off and find someone to care for their children. It would be surely better to send children back to school and leave them at hands of systematic management.