Stop the Covid madness before we lose this generation of children
The protection of children is a fundamental tenet of civilised society. To protect a child is innate in every adult, regardless of being a parent or not.
In early 2020, we witnessed the horrific images of overwhelmed hospitals, spiralling deaths as Covid-19 began its rampage around the globe. The world was placed into lockdown to prevent the meltdown of healthcare systems and catastrophic loss of life.
Eventually, the world emerged from lockdown, only to inherit restrictions on daily life.
Today we are in a very different place. Vaccines, natural immunity, antiviral drugs, testing and other therapeutics, along with the natural mutation of the virus, have contributed to minimise the risk of death or serious illness. The risk of catastrophic loss of life and healthcare systems being overwhelmed is significantly reduced. We must learn to live with Covid, as we do measles, chickenpox and the constantly mutating flu virus.
As a result, governments around the world have adapted and policies have changed to allow life to return to something approaching normality. Importantly, many have returned to normal and not a “new normal”.
For Bermuda, adult life is slowly returning to normal. Most recently, mask-wearing mandates are to be removed from April 1 with workplaces free to implement policies as they see fit. Gatherings of 200 are permitted; we can sit, unrestricted, at a bar among friends, visitors and complete strangers; people can sit around a dinner table. Homes are open again to family and friends. We can exercise and play sport. Rules for visitors have been relaxed, from March 7, vaccinated visitors with a pre-arrival test are free to walk around our beautiful island, enjoy our hospitality, stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, conduct business meetings with no ongoing testing or checks.
Contrast this picture of adult life with that of our children. The restrictions imposed on schools more than two years ago have not changed in any meaningful way.
It was very clear, very early on, that children were less severely impacted by the virus, across all variants. Of note, full reopening of schools in other countries has not led to surges in hospital admissions. Cases highlighted in schools in Bermuda are being identified simply because of the level of testing in schools. If this level of testing was carried out across the whole population, there would be a very different demographic. Importantly, there has been no surge in hospital admissions.
Our children continue to be forced out of school, suffering the frustration, the isolation and, in many instances, the abject failure of remote learning, and continue to live with restrictions that significantly impair their education and development.
While children, parents and teachers are all too familiar with these burdensome and overbearing rules, other adults may be less familiar. Below are just some of the rules still in place (items within parentheses are author’s comments):
• Daily temperature check
• Three to six feet of physical distancing at all times between students and between students and staff
• Students should be seated in their desk, facing in the same direction — eg, all facing front of the classroom
• Round or kidney-shaped tables cannot be used, as students will be seated facing one another and/or too close to each other
• Reinforce “no-sharing” policies (this would include science, music and art equipment for senior schools and general play/learning equipment for primary students)
• Different play zones for each class bubble. Do not use community playgrounds
• Cancel field trips and other in-person gatherings — eg, assemblies, Christmas plays, school-leaving/graduation ceremonies
• Cancel or modify activities where students are likely to be in close contact — eg, plan activities that involve parallel play instead of co-operative play
• Halt extracurricular activities
• Staff and students (from P4 upward) to wear masks at all times while indoors
This reads more like prison than a place of learning and enlightenment. Our children are not “living with Covid” but “floundering under restrictions”; restrictions that no longer make sense. The Ministry of Education has determined the upcoming relaxation of mask-wearing for the country will not apply to schools.
In addition, quarantine rules continue to be applied in an overbearing way with whole year groups or class groups being sent home to isolate because of small numbers of cases being identified — an outbreak is defined as anything more than two cases. This, despite the use of daily temperature checks, regular antigen testing and mask wearing. Not only does this have a direct impact on the child’s learning and development, it has a very real impact on the social and economic wellbeing of families, as parents or carers are forced to take time off work to supervise. Increased anxiety and suffering are spreading through many families across the country.
Schools and teachers struggle to create an environment where children feel safe, secure and able to learn within the confines of the restrictions. Indeed, it is only in the past few weeks that some schools have been able to welcome back on campus a full complement of students because dealing with the physical constraints imposed was near impossible. No child in Bermuda has had a normal school experience for more than two years ... and it continues.
The impacts have been devastating: children unable to participate in group activities, no collaboration, no teamwork, no science experiments, musical instruments left idle in music rooms, no singing, no interschool sport. Teachers unable to see a child’s reaction in class. No emotional contact between classmates in the classroom, no sense of community among teachers or among students. Lack of continuity because of blanket isolation mandates.
For primary students, interaction with peers is fundamental in the development of social skills; seeing a teacher’s face is fundamental to language learning. At more senior levels, masks inhibit the teaching and learning of language; collaboration is an important skill, recognised as integral to progressive education; students are missing sport and physical activity, manifesting in aggressive behaviours. The impacts are across every aspect of learning in every age group.
Teachers are doing their utmost to deliver under these extreme circumstances, but understandably are finding it difficult to engage, are frustrated, and mentally and physically exhausted. Campuses may be finally open, but this is not education, this is not learning, these are not schools.
The psychological and physical impacts on children from restrictions placed on them in schools are universally acknowledged and irrefutable. Impacts include increases in anxiety, feelings of isolation, antisocial behaviour, twofold increases in cases of child psychosis, increases in domestic abuse and increases in child suicide. This is why countries around the world have prioritised returning education to normal.
As adults, we are now living life close to normal. Last week, the Bermuda Risk Summit welcomed more than 200 delegates who sat all day, unmasked around tables for three days. Meanwhile, class sizes are restricted, and distancing, masking and quarantine policies are strictly enforced in schools. How does this sit within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? How can this be scientifically sound? It certainly isn’t morally sound.
This article began: “The protection of children is a fundamental tenet of civilised society. To protect a child is innate in every adult, regardless of being a parent or not.”
There have been many well-intentioned, earnest attempts to engage with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education to try to remedy this situation. Schools have tried, medical professionals are engaged, parent advocacy groups have tried, business leaders have voiced concern, children’s charities have articulated the devastating effects. These private meetings have been met with misdirection and a steadfast refusal to change the restrictions, despite the changed environment.
All the above restrictions were originally put in place on a temporary basis, in good faith, to protect against a virus we did not understand. Time has passed, knowledge has been acquired, vaccinations administered and the virus itself represents a vastly reduced health threat.
What is needed is a true, risk-based approach — based on hospital admissions. The risks to children of continued imposition of these rules far outweigh their benefit. Under the existing phasing, even the most benign scenario, Phase 4, defined as “No new cases detected for at least 28 days. Implies a near-zero risk of infection for the general population.” The requirements dictate:
• Mask wearing indoors at all times
• Physical distancing of three feet
A recent paper issued by the Chief Medical Officer contains no pathway to normal, despite stating a primary principal of “ensuring the safe, adequate and appropriate educational and social learning and development of children”.
Are our children to be permanently constrained?
The Covid situation at present no longer represents a health emergency; however, a significant health emergency among the youngest and most vulnerable in society is worsening — that of mental and emotional wellbeing — and its effects will be long-lasting and potentially permanent. There is also an alarming educational deficit and increasing educational divide, furthering a social divide. This will have a devastating effect for years to come, as these children struggle to enter the workforce. The imposition of these ongoing restrictions serves only to exacerbate these issues. It is this that is now our collective emergency.
On its own website, the Government cites the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in determining these rules. Recently, the CDC significantly relaxed mask-wearing protocols by moving to a community, risk-based method dictated by hospital admissions. Two thirds of US schools have removed mask mandates.
Further, the Government refers to Public Health England as one of its partners in dealing with Covid. In England, schools have been operating virtually normally for a year and recently the country eliminated all restrictions related to Covid. Why are we not following our international health partners now?
The Ministry of Education homepage has a countdown clock to the end of term. Telling. What is needed is a countdown clock to normal. What is needed is a true, risk-based framework for schools to operate within. What is needed is a plan as to how children will recapture their lost learning. What is needed is a focus on the child.
In a recent press conference, the Minister of Education stated that he had received only six e-mails from parents about Covid restrictions. Perhaps a clearer understanding of the facts will compel all adults — not just parents — to write to Mr Rabain at email@example.com and health minister Kim Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as every elected official on both sides of the House of Assembly to express their views. Schoolchildren and teachers may also feel the need to write or draw images expressing their experiences.
The true caseload of those living with Covid is more than 10,300. That is the more than 10,300 children living under the restrictions in the Bermuda school system. They are now in their third year of suffering the effects.
It is time to stop.
If meaningful change is not made soon, we will have lost a generation and Bermuda’s future is condemned. Shame on us for not protecting our children.
• Richard Lightowler, a former partner of KPMG where he helped many young Bermudians to develop their careers, is a parent and 30-year resident of Bermuda. He remains deeply concerned about the long-term impacts from Covid-19 for all children in Bermuda’s schools and its consequential effects on Bermuda’s sustainability