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Education under the pressure of Omicron

Education has come under severe pressure from the fifth consecutive epidemic wave, triggered by the COVID-19 Omicron variant. The present learning process has become a leading reason for the increase in the country’s overall morbidity, especially among the youngest. In the age group of 0-19 years old, for the period from the 12th of May to the 15th of September 2021 (127 days), the cases of coronavirus infection are 5285. After the beginning of the school year until the end of 2021, for 107 days (from the 16th of September to the 31st of December), their number reaches 22,010 cases. The amazing thing in the period from the beginning of 2022 (from the 1st  to the 22nd of January 2022) is that in just 22 days, the newly registered cases of COVID-19 among 0-19-year-olds are 23 277. The incidence rate of the youngest begins to rise dramatically from the 49th week of 2021. Currently, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is very dominant in the country.

Nevertheless, the rapid growth after the Christmas and New Year holidays is extremely worrying. In the last 3 weeks, Omicron has led to an expected rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria. Despite the government’s intentions to keep businesses, restaurants and especially schools open, pressure on the healthcare system has increased rapidly, forcing authorities to impose tougher anti-epidemic measures. The restrictions introduced mainly affect schools under pressure from the increasing number of positive-tested students and teachers and a significant proportion of quarantined classes switching to distance learning in an electronic environment or to hybrid learning on a rotating basis. Decisions to switch to e-learning are taken at the local level by the regional health inspectorates, coordinating with the local crisis headquarters. Although this action is unpopular, it is a highly effective and proven solution to reduce the rate of virus spread during previous epidemics.

What do the data on morbidity among the youngest part of the society show?

Figure 1. Cases of COVID-19 among children and adolescents in Bulgaria – age group 0-19 years for the period 12.05.2021 – 20.01.2022

Figure 2. Newly registered cases of COVID-19 in 0-19 year olds by age groups for the period 25.09.2021 – 20.01.2022

The data shows that from the beginning of 2022, children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 are most affected, which is worrying. From Figure 3 is clear that for the past 7 days, this group has been more affected than the groups of 40-49, 30-39 and 50-59-year-olds.

Figure 3. Newly registered cases of COVID-19 in Bulgaria by age groups for the period 25.09.2021 – 20.01.2022

The sharp and record increase in cases among children has put serious pressure on the healthcare system and its ability to provide good medical care for the youngest. Hospitals from various districts in the country have reported high occupancy of pediatric beds in recent weeks, which can be a serious problem for hospitals with a restricted limit on pediatric beds, thus further enhancing the requirement for measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

The transition to distance learning in an electronic environment is also the main measure. Such decisions are difficult to make, especially when this happens almost continuously during the last two school years. The implied measure aims to break Omicron’s distribution chain in educational institutions and significantly reduce transmission chains in society. The extended mid-term holiday is also a preventive measure, which will ensure a safer return of students to the classrooms.

From Science in the Crisis, we support temporary anti-epidemic measures in schools. Combined with testing students twice a week when they return to the classroom, these are the right measures to provide face-to-face training and reduce the epidemic’s impact on student’s mental health. However, the most effective measure to ensure safe learning remains in the hands of their parents and society.

We know from the experience of Western European countries that it is the high vaccination coverage that allows schools and establishments to remain open without having a catastrophic impact on the healthcare system and the economy. It is up to us to preserve children and adolescents’ health in Bulgaria and return students to class.

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