According to the latest figures released by UNESCO, some 1,3-billion learners around the world were not able to attend school or university as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In South Africa, there has been much discussion about the reopening and closing of schools, but conversations have been centred around learners’ access to technology and e-learning rather than the practicalities of what is needed to ensure learners and teachers stay safe.

Gerald Naidoo, CEO of Leviathan Viral Testing Africa, says that PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is as vital as testing in ensuring that our educators and learners stay safe in the weeks and the months ahead. However, he points out that testing is perceived to be far more expensive and inaccessible than PPE.

“A lot of focus has been placed on the need for social distancing and PPE in schools. And this is very true. However, testing is the one sure-fire way to ensure that we are constantly aware of what is going on at our schools,” he says.

“If schools had the ability to test every learner and every teacher, every day, this would go a long way to making sure that everyone in the education system – from parents, to teachers, to learners – was more comfortable, and more confident in their own ability to fight the spread of the virus.”

Naidoo says that the rapid deployment of testing must be made available to support outbreaks in schools, and that this can be executed in a range of ways such as the deployment of Mobile Testing Units (MTUs), temporary testing satellites and drop off and collection routes. The most appropriate testing channel should be discussed and agreed between all stakeholders, he adds.

“The provincial and national departments of education should also roll out testing for teachers, as well as school staff who have worked at schools that have an outbreak. These tests should be repeated regularly. This will not only help ensure that schools can contain infections, but that government has a constant view of infection rates.”

He points out that learners in South Africa need to be in school. Remote schooling is mostly impossible for the poor, he says, not to mention the fact that 80% of school children in the country receive publicly funded meals at schools – and for many of these children it is the only nutritious meal they get every day.

“Under these circumstances, there is no choice to continue a situation where learners have to stay away from school. In light of this, it is critically important to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and throughout the community, and this requires regular testing and fast results.”

Naidoo says that a different testing approach is needed to enable learners and teachers to be able to access regular testing – and receive their results timeously.

“We have developed a three-tier system that ensures that everybody is constantly aware of their status, allowing schools to safely continue operating while also providing a proactive method of managing an effective Covid-19 response to minimise infection rates. Combining temperature and symptom screening with both antibody and PCR testing, this system allows for constant screening to provide an accurate indication of infection levels every day.”

He adds that this also offers the added benefit of allowing authorities to have a real-time view of hotspots and the movement of the virus, and will greatly alleviate pressure on labs.

“With antibody testing used as a surveillance tool, only those individuals flagged as potentially being in the first day or two of infection need to be tested using PCR, dramatically reducing the numbers of tests that need to be conducted by our overworked labs. Applying a three-tiered approach to Covid-19 screening in schools will provide a solution to the calls for school closures, ensuring that the academic year can be saved.”