The secondary schools in Nigeria open today, 4th August, for students in exit clauses. This opening facilitates their participation in the 2020 West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) conducted by the West African Examination Council.
This comes amid growing global concerns among researchers on the role of children in the transmission of COVID-19. Findings from a recent South Korea study on 59,073 contacts of 5,706 cases of COVID-19 showed the highest COVID-19 transmission rates at 18.6% amongst contacts of index patients aged between 10 to 19 years (adolescents) compared to all age groups. Why this result was found provokes more questions. For instance, do adolescents actually follow preventive guidelines? Have they higher infectious concentrations of COVID-19? And so on.
Time and more study would reveal the reasons and causes and generalizability of the findings. However, as parents, schools and community re-opening schools even for a limited number of students, prevention amongst them cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, this characterized consultations between the Nigeria Government at all levels and stakeholders in the education and health sectors.
Consequently, following successfully passing inspections to ensure safe reopening, secondary schools are expected to institute the prescribed and other protective measures (handwashing, mask-wearing, as well as physical distancing). Notwithstanding it is imperative for parents, guardians, and the entire community to contribute their own quota in keeping these students safe. Ensuring student safety should also involve measures to promote the individual health of these students.
These measures should include access to healthy and nutritious foods especially fruit and vegetables every day. According to the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report, consumption of fruits and vegetables should be around 500 grams daily (roughly one orange and two servings of vegetables for example). While encouraging these adolescents to eat fruit and vegetables along with their meals must be done, it’s not enough. Students must be supported with the right meals from home, as well as in their schools where refreshments are sold.
Secondly, it is important to eradicate concurrent infections. Commonly this should include deworming of intestinal helminths (worms). At regular intervals, deworming reduces these infections which though unnoticed leads to poor absorption of food and nutrient deficiencies. Several micronutrients mainly gotten from a healthy diet as described previously, are associated with improved immunity. These include vitamins A, D, C, E; and zinc, iron, and selenium; which are at risk of being deficient when worms flourish. So, this is a good time to ensure that students in exit classes are dewormed.
Additionally, alcohol must be avoided. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol makes the immune system weak, which in turn reduces the capacity of the body to deal with infections. Particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a strong immunity cannot be over-emphasized. While arguments on the relevance of talking to adolescents about avoiding alcohol may be raised, the harmful use of alcohol amongst adolescents is a global concern.
In Nigeria, Anusiem C.A., Eze O.U, Eze E.C., and colleagues found 42.4% of secondary school boys had consumed alcohol in their study published in March 2020. Similar findings were noted by Adekeye O.A., Adeusi S.O. and colleagues in their 2019 study. Guardians and schools must seek this time to educate their wards on the general dangers of alcohol use with an emphasis on staying healthy presently.
Indeed cultural and religious differences must also be acknowledged regarding alcohol use, but the influence of peer pressure is also well established. This is also relevant as a factor influencing other illicit substance use. Therefore, students must be empowered with the right information as well as provided psychosocial support in building the requisite life skills to make the right choices.
A big part of these choices includes choosing to abide by COVID-19 preventive measures. From wearing a mask, maintaining physical distances, and handwashing to taking care of their bodies, students have a role to play in their safety. This must be recognized and supported in a language and with actions that would promote the appropriate behavioral change in students, as schools resume.
The responsibility to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic lies in many hands. But the responsibility of these students must not be forgotten as solutions are debated and found. Working together students will achieve this rite of passage necessary for not just personal but also national development safely.