Contradictheory: Going back to school is new, scary, and full of uncertainty

A teacher taking students’ temperatures on the first day back for students on July 15, 2020. Whether Malaysian parents choose to send their children to school or not, the writer believes the important thing to do is to be proactive and prepare for things to change at a moment’s notice. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Do you remember what it was like when you first went to school? You might have been a bit scared and nervous, perhaps. Definitely a lot of unknowns to navigate. Funny how parents are experiencing those same feelings this week.

Schools have gradually been reopening in Malaysia in the recovery movement control order (MCO) period, although worries remain. The first students allowed to return, on June 24, 2020, were those sitting for public exams. The week beginning July 12, 2020, the rest of secondary school returned, as well as those in Year Five and Six, while on July 22, 2020, Years One to Four will return.

When I hear parents talking about the risks of the “new normal” at school, the debate seems to fall into one of two categories: Is it really safe to send children back to school? And will there be a second wave of infections to contend with?

The government has also recognised this, evidenced by the statement made by the Education Ministry’s deputy director-general that parents can choose whether to send their children to school. On top of that, an infographic from the Health Ministry makes it clear that schools will not close if somebody working or studying there is found to be Covid-19 positive. Instead, “frequent disinfection will be sufficient”.

I believe most parents’ instinct would be to pull their child out of school if somebody there is found to be positive. Arguably, this makes sense because those who have been found positive and show symptoms only do so one to two days after they have been at their most infectious. This means the virus may have already been unknowingly spreading in school.

But what if the rate of infections rise not in school but in the immediate surrounding area? As it is, Sarawak has deferred the opening of schools in three neighbouring districts based on reports of six new cases of Covid-19 in Kuching (including one death). At least for that state government, infections in the community are a cause of concern for schools.

In fact, schools and their surrounding communities should be regarded as a single entity. If there are truly zero infections, then there is absolutely no risk in going to school. If there is an infection in the school, then it is a new case that the whole community needs to take note of.

We also need to understand the nature of these infections. Are they isolated cases or are they indicative of a pattern that will get worse? This is the idea behind a “second wave” that you may have read about in the last few months, where numbers of infections rise again to the point that we may have to return to the first stage of the MCO again, basically, a lockdown.

How sharp the rise of infections is can be quantified in something called the R0 number, which is a calculated number of how many people will contract a contagious disease from a single infected person. An R0 larger than one means that, over time, more people are getting infected. If it’s below one, fewer people are.

This calculation changes depending on the contact rate, how the disease can spread, and the infectious period. Before the MCO started in March, Malaysia’s R0 was 3.55. By June, it had dropped to 0.3. Meanwhile, in Germany in June, for example, the country’s four-day R0 number rose from 1.06 to 2.88, partly due to the infection of 1,000 workers at a meat processing plant. At about the same time, the R0 for the Australian state of Victoria rose from below 1 to 2.5 in a week.

How will reopening schools impact this number? Indications are that it will go up a little.

A study published in the journal Science observed what happened in Wuhan and Shanghai in China, and estimated the difference between schools being opened and closed would raise or lower the R0 by about 0.3. This seems to be supported by what happened in Denmark – when schools opened there in April, their R0 increased from 0.6 to 0.9.

It seems reasonable then to say that if there is a rapid proliferation of cases over a few days in an area in less than a week, this would be a reason to pull a child out of school.

However, you must remember that infections are a lagging indicator. It’s like going up a hill in a car but only using the rear view window to judge how steep it is. Wouldn’t it be good to know when there is a hill coming up before you tip from the horizontal?

I think it’s possible to look at what’s happening elsewhere around the world to get an estimate of what can trigger a spike in infections. The blame is generally put on movement restrictions being lifted too quickly. However, if everybody is cautious and no children go to school when they reopen, then you are just delaying the problem rather than solving it.

To that extent, the strategy used by the Malaysian government, to let children return in batches, is a sensible one. But I think it could have been even more gradual to give people an opportunity to better gauge risks and issues that arise from returning to schools.

Whether you choose to send your child to school or not, I believe the important thing to do is to be proactive and prepare for things to change at a moment’s notice. It only takes a week for the R0 to drastically shift, and as mentioned before, a single infection in a school may turn things upside down.

My advice to schools and parents is that you should make plans now, so if (when?) things go bad, you can react immediately instead of arguing about what should happen next. The shift in education from physical to virtual (and then back again) should be as seamless as possible.

Yes, going back to school is new, scary, and full of uncertainty. But it shouldn’t mean we can’t prepare for it.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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