After the government gave the green light to schools to begin in-person learning, students in private and public schools are expected to start their studies on Monday, November 2. After about eight months of no operations due to Covid-19, can we say it is now safe to reopen? And if it is, what important measures should be followed as the children return to studies? To get these answers, The New Times’ Hudson Kuteesa had an interview with Dr Menelas Nkeshimana, the Team Lead for Covid-19 Case Management and Coordinator for the Western Province, on what precautions to stick to for both learners and teachers. Excerpts: Thousands of students are returning to school countrywide on Monday. How safe do you think is the reopening of schools at this time? Opening schools at this time in November, I would say it is much safer than it was going to be if the schools had to reopen any month earlier. This is based on the facts and data that is available regarding the Covid-19 pandemic in Rwanda like the number of cases across the country and number of suspected cases per day and the disease burden in corners of the country, including places that were heavily hit like Rusizi. We know that some of the students are young. What do you think are the measures that can be taken to protect them as well as those that take care of them while they are at school? The measures to be taken as the schools reopen are primarily the same measures that we have been observing and are still observing, like hand hygiene, mask-wearing as in the ordinary population. But now in addition to that, because of the school activities, the environment and the risk; there are more details that should be taken care of as schools reopen and you can break them into categories like what do you require from the staff (teachers) – how do you want them to interact with the students? They should be out to supervise the schooling activity, the environment and detect if there are even suspected cases. Dr Menelas Nkeshimana. / Photo: Courtesy PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) should be available at the school, and things like enough handwashing stations depending on the number of students. All these details, I hope have been taken care of by the Ministry of Education before school resumed. Then how is the school space going to be managed? I believe they have now reduced the number of students per class because social distancing should be maintained. Are the classrooms aerated enough to minimize the risk of contamination within the class? So these should have been taken care of, I believe they have been taken care of. If you are staying in one environment, and say, you have missed the fact that one student or teacher is an asymptomatic carrier of the virus; if the required measures are observed, the risk of infecting others will be minimal. You want to maintain short classes where you allow students to have some breaks to go out so that the room gets aerated. All these details relating to space management should be taken care of. There are also system issues to consider. For example, do they have a place to isolate a student who is suspected? Do they know whom to call in such a situation? Or what happens if a student gets diagnosed with Covid-19? How available are laboratories in various parts of the country? Do you think all schools can have access to a laboratory within their district or within a province? Our health leaders in Rwanda are moving towards the use of rapid antigen tests to troubleshoot the technicalities related to testing. For students and teachers with comorbidities, what would you advise concerning more protection for them? First, we shouldn’t say that they should not go back to school. We have to make sure that decisions are made based on equity principle. Even if they are vulnerable, we can still create a school environment that can minimize the risk of them being infected. Schools should know the health situation of their students and teachers, and if they have comorbidities. The nurse at school should know how to access this data concerning the students and teachers. What role do you think the families where these children come from in regard to their safety returning to school? I would hope that by now all parents have been preparing their children for possible school reopening which means they would have had enough time to educate their children in regard to what to do and not what do to. There is cartoon content that RBC (Rwanda Biomedical Centre) has put online where a parent was asking her child: “Remind me what you should not do?” and the child replies: “I should not borrow, I should not exchange my writing mark, I should not hug,” and so on. So, we have had time to educate. And the parents should have finished this page for preparing the children. And also if a parent has a child that is for example under investigation for Covid-19, or with recent contact history with infected people; the responsible decision for that parent is not to send that child to school until the situation is clarified. We all have to be responsible and mind all these details.