WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti

Global organisations urge safe schools reopening

Johannesburg – The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have urged African governments to promote safe reopening of schools, taking measures to limit the spread of the corona virus.

 A WHO survey of 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that schools are fully open in only six countries. They are closed in 14 and partially open in 19 others. Around a dozen countries are planning to resume classroom learning in September, the start of the academic year in some countries.

 However, the impact of extended education disruption includes poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies and challenges in mental development of children due to reduced interaction related to school closures.

 In Eastern and Southern Africa, UNICEF finds that violence rates against children are up, while nutrition rates are down with over 10 million children missing school meals.

 For girls, especially those displaced or living in low-income households, the risks are even higher.

 According to a World Bank modelling, school closures in sub-Saharan Africa could result in lifetime earning losses of $4 500 per child. This may also be worsened by reduced earning of parents who are forced to stay at home to take care of the children, especially in households that cannot afford child care services.

 WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moetisays schools have paved the way to success for many Africans.

 “They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive. We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain Covid-19 and end up with a lost generation. Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents, with key measures like physical distancing in place, Moetisays.

 WHO, UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross have issued guidance on Covid-19 prevention and control in schools. It includes physical distancing measures such as staggering the beginning and end of the school day, cancelling events that create crowding, spacing desks when possible, providing hand washingfacilities, wearing masks, discouraging unnecessary touching and ensuring that sick students and teachers stay at home.

 UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed Malick says the long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks have greater harm to children, their future and communities.

 “When we balance the harm done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom, Malick says.

 WHO and UNICEF also recommend a range of hygiene and disinfection measures for schools to reopen and operate safely, including regular hand washing, daily disinfection and cleaning of surfaces, basic water, sanitation and waste management facilities, environmental cleaning and decontamination.

 However, millions of children attend schools that lack water, sanitation and hygiene services.

 According to a WHO and UNICEF report assessing progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools between 2000 and 2019; in sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services, 44% have basic drinking water and 47% have basic sanitation services.

 The organisations stress that there are quick solutions to hand washing in schools, such as a tap, bucket and soap.

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