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0,5m social distancing rule at schools is not a good idea, but may be better than current system – expert

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Learners sitting in a hall.
The Department of Basic Education is proposing a reduction of the social distancing rule from 1metre to 0.5metres.  Picture Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Stellenbosch University’s Community health expert Dr Jo Barnes says the proposed 0.5 metre distance rule is not entirely a bad idea.

Reducing the social distancing measure at schools to accommodate more learners is not be a good idea, but it may be a better option under the circumstance, said Stellenbosch University Community health expect Dr Jo Barnes.

This followed the Department of Basic Educations announcement that it intends to approach the cabinet to reduce the social distancing measure from the currently gazetted 1 metre to 0.5 metres at schools.

The reduction is to address the issue of space at schools that are unable to accommodate 100% capacity of learners. Primary school learners, from August 2, have been attending school daily .

Barnes said that weighing up the disadvantage of not receiving proper schooling versus attending class safely is an ethical question that can only be answered looking back in time.

“The reduced distancing is never a good idea, but it may be the better option, under the circumstances,” she said.

Barnes explained Covid-19 was mostly airborne – through droplets every time you breathe out. These cloud droplets increases in size when you shout, cough, etc.

“The objective of physical measures to keep people safe is to reduce the droplets in the air that can potentially infect others. Staying a suitable distance away from others is one of those measures but by no means the only one playing a role,” she said.

The spread of the virus is increased in areas with crowds due to lots of air movement or inadequate ventilation.

“This is part of many problems in the school situation. Space is at a premium on far too many of our schools (overcrowding even before the (pandemic began). Add to that, the complications that the whole teaching situation relies on speech and sometimes calling out or singing, etc. (by the learners and the teacher), then you have a high-risk scenario.”

Barnes stressed that she doubted that the reduction of distance was solely driven by the issue of space.

Avoiding trying to sound “clever”, Barnes said she was concerned about the ventilation at schools instead, and maybe large tents and or temporary container classrooms could help.

Teachers’ union have already expressed their apprehension about the reduction of the distance rule, requesting that the DBE provide scientific data to support its stance as well as the health and safety questions.

The unions have since requested a meeting with education authorities to discuss the matter.

In the meantime, schools that do not have enough space to accommodate all learners are still operating on a rotational basis.

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