Over one in 10 current COVID-19 cases are children, with the highest number in the 11-17 age group, prompting Church and independent schools to hold out while monitoring the situation closely.

Among the active cases, 83 children are aged up to five years, 85 are between six and 10 and 175 are in the 11-17 age group, adding up to around 12 per cent, according to the Superintendent of Public Health, Charmaine Gauci, who was on Tuesday taking questions from Times of Malta readers.

Last September, before the opening of schools, less than five per cent of those with COVID-19 were children. 

The number of infected children was also highlighted in August, when they made up around 1.5 per cent of active cases.

The current scenario has prompted independent schools to “monitor closely the situation as it unfolds and make the decisions needed per school,” Sue Midolo, president of the Independent Schools Association, said.

As the head of St Catherine’s High School, in Pembroke, Midolo said it was observing matters and would make the necessary decisions accordingly.

So far, Chiswick House School and St Martin’s College are proceeding in the same way, with all students in the former in class and the latter in hybrid mode.

The head of San Anton School, Sandro Spiteri, expressed concern that the new COVID-19 strain was infecting younger children, at a time when staff members were still in the process of getting vaccinated.

He said he was assured the Early School educators would be prioritised for vaccination “but they are the only ones who have not yet received their first appointment”.

San Anton School got no response when querying this, Spiteri said, insisting it was “essential that Public Health fast forwards the vaccines to teachers, otherwise schools will no longer be able to retain the current level of in-class teaching”.  

While it has managed to find the internal resources to continue offering in-person teaching for those who want this in all primary classes, some classes in the secondary sector had to be sent on Distance Learning due to voluntary self-isolation, Spiteri said.

Essential that Public Health fast-forwards the vaccines to teachers, otherwise schools will no longer be able to retain the current level of in-class teaching

“We are in favour of the new measures now in place, including the stopping of after-school contact activities,” the head said.

“However, we feel they do not go far enough to address the worrying high number of infections in the community, which far surpasses the levels at which schools in other countries are being closed.”

St Aloysius College rector Fr Jimmy Bartolo said the system where half the students were physically present and the other half had online lessons was “working very well” and its primary and secondary schools and Sixth Form only had a few positive cases. 

“We prefer to have students physically present because we strongly believe it is the best way for teaching and learning, even during this pandemic,” Fr Bartolo told Times of Malta.

“Nevertheless, we are monitoring the situation and will decide accordingly,” he said, adding that there were days when the schools decided to go online.

St Joseph Senior School, Sliema, is hoping to complete the mock and mid-year exams currently under way before taking decisions about moving online, its head, Clarissa Fleri Soler, said.

“We are doing our utmost to keep our schools open and to continue with face-to-face teaching in the best interest of the education of our students through rigorous implementation of COVID mitigation measures,” Stephen Cachia, director of La Salle Mission Malta, said.

Meanwhile, De La Salle and Stella Maris Colleges, as well as St Benild’s School, were in continuous communication with the Secretariat for Catholic Education and the Church Schools Association, which are liaising with the health and education authorities about the current situation.

Children and teachers are contracting the virus from the community and going to school, where there have been many more cases this term than the last, Tanya Melillo, head of the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit, acknowledged.

Melillo said the spread was more likely in primary – and even more so in nurseries, where children and staff did not wear masks – than in secondary schools where everyone did so and social distanced.

Most infected children have been asymptomatic, or simply manifest a mild cold, paediatric consultant Victor Grech said.

It is possible that they are carrying and transmitting the virus to others without even knowing it, although, with the measures in place in school, this does not appear to be a significant problem, he added.

“People are getting infected in greater numbers and this may be due to mutations in the virus, known as variants, that allow it to spread more easily,” he said.

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