Parents, students and teachers should stop all extracurricular socialising if reopening schools is to be a success, the head of the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit has warned.

As thousands of pupils prepare to return to their desks next week, one of the government’s most senior public health advisors, Tanya Melillo, said social life should be reduced to “jobs and grocery shopping”.

Her warning comes as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said Malta was of “high concern” due to its rising COVID-19 death rate, owing to a spread among elderly people.

“If we want our children to go to school – and rightly so – we cannot expect to send them to after-school activities like drama, dance and catechism,” Mellilo said in an interview with Times of Malta.

“If we want schools to remain open and parents to work, social life needs to decrease and be whittled down to the bare essentials of jobs and grocery shopping, with no fringe benefits. This applies to teachers too and their out-of-school activities.

“We should go to work and straight home – no gym, no coffees and no mixing! If parents expose themselves, they are exposing their children.”

This is new for everyone – including Public Health

Melillo said she has been inundated with queries and worries from all angles of the education sector.

While Education Minister Owen Bonnici is determined that schools will reopen as planned on Monday, teachers’ unions argue that the academic year should begin online while infection rates remain high.

Protocols aimed at limiting interaction that could lead to the exposure of the virus have been put in place, including keeping children in ‘bubbles’, maintaining a 1.5 metre distance between pupils in class and mandatory mask-wearing.

Tanya Mellilo warns that parents, students and teachers will have to make sacrifices if school reopening is to work.Tanya Mellilo warns that parents, students and teachers will have to make sacrifices if school reopening is to work.

But Melillo said these guidelines will be useless if children then mix with others after school.

“They cannot expect to do everything just like they used to, especially in view of the fact that the community spread is still high and we have not managed to bring it down.”

She said people were still mixing too much, eating out, going to the beach and attending family gatherings and she recognised it would have been appropriate to introduce more stringent measures on keeping people apart in the run-up to this.

“This is new for everyone – including Public Health. The schools were closed during the first wave, so we have no prior experience. We will be learning certain things as we go along.

“We do not know how much it will spread and the schools will close at some point.”

Melillo believes schools should reopen next week, not least because children need to resume normality, but warned of the ripple effect of a single case.

Parents may not have realised that when there is a positive case in class, it is not just the children in the same bubble who may have to quarantine, but also their whole household, she pointed out.

“We are talking a conservative 15 families by four in isolation. This will have an impact on places of work, on the number of health care workers possibly, and on essential services.

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“We cannot afford a generation that falls behind if schools shut down, so as a society, we have to make a sacrifice and help each other,” she appealed.

Practical pre-school tips:

Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit head, Tanya Melillo, lists some practical measures for this particular scholastic year to reduce hassles parents would have to go through after the school day.

• Parents should take the time to prepare their children and themselves, explaining, to their younger kids especially, why they cannot do the things that come naturally to them, like hugging and sharing items and food. They need to understand that to be with their friends, they need to follow certain measures.

• It is safe and easy to provide school lunches in paper bags that can be thrown away, rather than having to constantly wash containers.

• Not everyone can wash uniforms daily, but this is not essential. Masks and visors are helpful in preventing splatter and protecting clothing anyway. But infrequent washing does not apply to the face coverings, which absolutely have to be washed and wiped down every day – a practice that is not yet obvious and ingrained.

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• It is essential also that masks are kept on and stored in a bag when not in use. To avoid contamination, they should not just be thrown around on removal. Even when they get into the car after school, students should immediately put their masks and visors in a container and sanitise their hands.

• Children will need time to get used to the drill when eating, for example: remove the mask, wash hands, eat, wash hands again, put it back on and wash hands again.

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