With hong kong deep in the fourth wave of the pandemic and schools closing down once again, the city is once more facing the question of whether schools should be closed during the pandemic.
"This is a much bigger conversation, and it has to be very contextual. It has to be not just at the country level, but at the community level in terms of really understanding what the public health procedures should be and what the local scenario is in each community," said Prachi Srivastava, tenured associate professor at Western University in Canada.
Specializing in global education and international development, Srivastava recently led a high-level policy brief for the T20 Task Force on the pandemic, which fed into the G20 summit.
She has also launched an interactive online dashboard that visualizes confirmed school-related cases in publicly funded elementary and secondary schools in Ontario on a map, along with demographic data relating to individual schools.
The Covid-19 School Dashboard is automatically updated every weekday with school-related data by the Ontario ministry of education and shows the cumulative magnitude of the coronavirus in the form of red bubbles, with the size reflecting the severity of each school's Covid situation.
"What I saw was that the ministry of education started reporting the schools that were affected by Covid-19, and they were doing that on a daily basis," she said. "But the issue was that the access to information needs to be in a way that is publicly consumable, especially on this kind of public health matter being an emergency that it is."
Hovering above the red bubbles will reveal the school's demographic variables, like the percentage of low-income households and parents with university-level educations.
While the dashboard does not currently offer daily data, Srivastava and her team are working on improvements to the dashboard and will hopefully show resolved cases and time scales alongside daily data in the near future.
"If this were just for research purposes, I probably wouldn't have released the dashboard right now - I would have waited until all the other functions were possible. But because the emergency is so urgent and the lack of consistent publicly consumable information is so severe, in this case, I thought [it was important] to have this as a public data tool, or just as a visualization tool in the first instance."
School closures, among other venues, may sound logical to protect youths, but this might have a much bigger impact than students having a longer Christmas holiday.
"Schools are hubs for a number of associated services, and in the absence of having the formal system run as normal as we possibly can, we need to be able to guarantee those services to the families and the groups that need them the most."
Some of these services include childcare, psychosocial support and even meals for students in some countries.
Moreover, study loss may have long-lasting consequences for students, such as reducing their future income and economic output.
According to a modelling paper in August, the total global lifelong estimated loss due to Covid school closures is over US$11 trillion to US$15 trillion (HK$85.5 trillion to HK$117 trillion) for just a few months of school closures during the year, bringing down current global GDP by 12 to 18 percent.
It also cites research from previous pandemics and crisis and how they affected the students' lives decades on, with lower income countries and underprivileged and less-educated groups suffering the most, widening global inequalities.
"I don't think governments and citizens have understood, and policymakers or researchers have really paid attention to, the long term impact," said Srivastava.
She raised a broader framework involving levels through which to conceptualize the pandemic risk: community, school and household.
Srivastava said that the community level is most important, as it is the main driver of transmission in societies.
This is already supported by studies from China and other upcoming research: "It's the community transmission that's really driving transmission elsewhere. Where community transmission is high, those countries have the most numbers of daily cases."
She also noted that this is reflected on her dashboard, with the four regions with the most community transmission in Ontario having the most red bubbles on the dashboard map.
Although the risk at the school level is less understood due to there being limited empirical data, Srivastava stressed that Covid policymaking is a very contextualized and localized matter, and not universally applicable.
She added that the only thing that schools can do is to mitigate the risk logistically, such as through reducing class sizes, using well-ventilated spaces, barriers and sanitizing frequently, but such matters have been politicized in some countries.
Outside of logistical measures, Srivastava believes that policymakers should be looking at "education continuity in the true sense" by focusing on youth employment, skills development and learning loss programs to mitigate the long-term impact on students.
"It was cited and reported very often that between 90 and 92 percent of children across the world had their educations disrupted. This affects almost every young person on the planet, and that population is 20 percent of humanity."
"We need to consider what are truly essential services in our societies. If we say that health and education are truly essential, what that means is to keep your hospitals and and your schools open as much as you possibly can - that they should be the last to close and the first to open. And that means making concrete decisions about how to do that."