Position Statement No. 17: An appeal regarding the upcoming 2021–2022 school year

We call for the vaccination of school children, mandatory vaccinations for school staff, and the observance of the rules concerning distance, disinfection, and masks (DDM). This is the only way to avoid remote learning in the 2021–2022 school year.

In the position statement “On students returning to school in 2020,”1 which we published on 19 August 2020, we wrote that “we recommend introducing mandatory mask-wearing for staff and at least older children in all schools.” We also recommended delegating teachers to specific classes, creating bubbles of students that would have no contact with one another, airing all rooms, and following disinfection procedures. However, those appeals were received with reluctance, sparking off questions and doubts. How could we suggest that children should wear masks? How could classes be taught in such conditions? In September 2020, there was no requirement to wear masks at school. Consequently, the issue soon became moot when schools shifted to remote learning in reaction to COVID-19 outbreaks that largely resulted from the failure to introduce proper preventive measures.

Recommendations for the new school year

A year has passed. The 2021–2022 school year is about to begin. We already know how much damage is done to children by long absence from school and lack of contact with other students and with teachers. We wrote about this in the position statement “Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the mental health and education of children and adolescents2 dated 25 January 2021. We are about to face an impending fourth wave of infections (we wrote about this in more detail in the position statement “Between one wave and another – the current lull should not cause us to relax our vigilance 3 dated 28 June 2021). Having in mind the experience gained fighting the pandemic over the past year and a half, what can we do today to prevent the situation we witnessed last year from happening again? Should we add more demands to the appeal we made last year?           

We again appeal for the wise opening of schools. In particular, we should introduce proper preventive measures, starting from wearing masks, airing rooms, and following disinfection procedures to delegating teachers to specific classes and dividing students into groups that will have no contact with one another. After each lesson and before returning to the staff room, teachers should carefully wash their hands, just as surgeons do before surgery. In addition, we have new ways to prevent schools in the times of the pandemic from posing a great danger to students and their loved ones and causing the epidemic to spread.

We call for the highest possible vaccination rates among school staff. Unvaccinated teachers and members of support staff should be removed from direct involvement in the functioning of schools during the pandemic, especially during surge periods. We also urge the widest possible promotion of COVID-19 vaccines among students. Vaccines are already available to all those who are at least 12 years of age. We hope that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will soon approve the use of vaccines for younger children. Let us remember that we can protect ourselves effectively against COVID-19: we have vaccines, which protect adults, adolescents, and children.  If a child cannot be vaccinated, it is necessary to create a “buffer of immunity” around such a child through what is called “ring vaccination,” i.e. vaccines should be given to the parents of the child and the people that the child meets on a daily basis. In particular, such measures should apply to middle-aged and elderly individuals and those with underlying diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and heart disease.

Some children and adolescents have already benefited from vaccines for those aged between 12 and 18. We already know that nearly 900,000 vaccines have been administered to members of this age group. However, this group comprises almost 2.2 million individuals, which means that 4.4 million doses are needed to vaccinate all of its members. Consequently, the vaccination rates in this age group are not very good. Both parents and their children deserve praise for receiving vaccines. However, the vaccination rates in this age group are very far from satisfactory. It must be stressed that some individuals under 18 years of age are at risk of developing very severe COVID-19, and vaccines save their lives and health. These include children with such diseases as diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, obesity, or hypertension. Another group that has great significance from the epidemiological perspective is formed by children who have frequent contact with elderly people, especially those with multiple diseases – children who live in multigenerational households, are under the care of their grandparents, or simply visit them.

In the case of the vaccine approved for use in individuals over 12 years of age (Pfizer–BioNTech), full protection is achieved at least two weeks after they receive their second dose. It is therefore important that vaccinations start immediately – the sooner the better! Vaccines will make schools much safer places and allow them to operate normally. If the next wave of infections becomes severe, necessitating hybrid learning (a mix of in-person and online learning), unvaccinated school children should above all stay at home.

Regular coronavirus tests

We also call for regular testing for SARS-CoV-2.  Such tests do not have to be overly burdensome for students and school staff. Rapid mass tests should be enabled in schools, and antigen tests are recommended for those with any cold or flu-like symptoms. Such tests are relatively inexpensive and allow the detection of most infections. They should be carried out at least once a week, and preferably twice a week. Alternatively, we should consider pool testing. Researchers from the PAS have already implemented with success one of the possibilities of such group diagnostic tests.4 With pooled testing, every student and member of school staff should give their saliva samples once a week. That is all. The samples should be tested as soon as possible, and no later than on the next day. In this way, we can detect infected individuals and outbreaks in schools. All infected individuals and their family members should be isolated and placed under quarantine.

An appeal to caregivers and teachers

Anyone who has been onboard a passenger plane knows the rule that should be followed in emergency situations, when oxygen masks drop. If you are sitting next to a child, you put your own oxygen mask on first and then help the child. During the pandemic, many caregivers have already received their vaccines, staving off the threat that the children they look after will be left without their care. Now the time has come to vaccinate children – for now those aged 12 or older and hopefully soon also younger children. We call for the vaccination of schoolchildren, mandatory vaccinations for school staff, and the observance of the rules listed above in schools. This is the only way to avoid remote learning in the 2021–2022 school year and protect children and adolescents from its long-term adverse consequences, so one year from now we will not be forced to consider for the third time how to make schools safe for children and adolescents.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary. Other members of the team are:

  • Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
  • Prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
  • Prof. Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
  • Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
  • Dr. Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
  • Dr. Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
  • Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology)
  • Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)

1 On students returning to school in September 2020

2 Position Statement no. 10 of the COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences: Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the mental health and education of children and adolescents

3 Position statement 16 of the COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences: Between one wave and another – the current lull should not cause us to relax our vigilance

4 Source: Puls Medycyny “Instytut Nenckiego PAN: testy grupowe na koronawirusa działają bez zarzutu” [The Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, Polish Academy of Sciences: SARS-CoV-2 pool tests work flawlessly – article available in Polish]”