Covid-19: UN agencies issue guidelines for safe reopening of schools

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As prevention measures for COVID-19, WFP food beneficiaries are called by small group to facilitate distancing, received sensitisation messages on the virus through the megaphones, are asked to wash hands with soap before and after getting their entitlements. In addition, staff and volunteers in charge of the distributions are using protecting masks and gloves at Muona, Nsanje District in Malawi on March 24, 2020. Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji

United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank today issued new guidelines to be followed on the safe reopening of schools amidst ongoing closures saying that “schools must look at how they can reopen better.”

In their joint statement, the agencies also warned the widespread closures of educational establishments due to the Covid-19 pandemic present an unprecedented risk to children’s education and wellbeing.

Releasing the statement in New York, USA, the agencies said that this is “particularly for the most marginalised children who rely on school for their education, health, safety and nutrition.”

UNICEF Executive Director, Ms Henrietta Fore said the guidelines offer practical advice for national and local authorities on how to keep children safe when they return to school.

“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school,” she noted.

“We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return. Unless we prioritise the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”

WFP Executive Director, Mr David Beasley, noted that while there is not yet enough evidence to measure the impact of school closures on disease transmission rates, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety and learning are well documented.

“In the poorest countries, children often rely on schools for their only meal of the day. But with many schools now closed because of COVID, 370 million children are missing out on these nutritious meals which are a lifeline for poor families,” he observed.

They are also being denied the health support they normally get through school. This could do lasting damage, so when schools reopen, it is crucial that these meal programmes and health services are restored, which can also help to draw the most vulnerable children back to school,” Mr Beasley added.

Pupils being served porridge at break time in Uganda.

The guidelines say schools must look at how can reopen better with improved learning and more comprehensive support for children at the school including health, nutrition, psychosocial support and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.

As part of the Global Education Coalition, UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank urge governments to assess the benefits of classroom-based instruction compared to remote learning, and the risk factors related to reopening of schools, noting the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance.

“While many students are falling behind in their learning journey because of prolonged school closures, the decision of when and how to reopen schools, while far from straightforward, should be a priority. Once there is a green light on the health front, a whole set of measures will need to be in place to ensure that no student is left behind,” said UNESCO Director General, Mr Audrey Azoulay.

“These guidelines provide all-round guidance for governments and partners to facilitate the reopening of schools for students, teachers and families. We share one goal: to protect and advance the right to education for every learner,” he continued.

World Bank Global Director for Education, Mr Jaime Saavedra said conditions that reduce disease transmission, safeguard essential services and supplies and promote healthy behaviour should be put in place.

This includes access to soap and clean water for safe hand washing, procedures on when staff or students feel unwell, protocols on social distancing and good hygiene practices.

In the Photo: A woman washes her hands at a hand washing station at a WFP food distribution where new health and safety measures have been rolled out to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Madziwa Secondary School, Shamva district, Zimbabwe. Photo: WFP/Tatenda Macheka

Schools are also urges to focus on practices that compensate for instructional time, strengthen pedagogy and hybrid learning models like integrating approaches in remote and distance education including knowledge on disease transmission and prevention.

Education facilities are again urged to diversify critical communications and outreach by making them available in relevant languages and in accessible formats.

“Once schools begin to reopen, the priority becomes reintegrating students into school settings safely and in ways that allow learning to pick up again, especially for those who suffered the biggest learning losses. This is a critical moment as it is the launching pad for a new normal that should be more effective and equitable,” said Mr Saavedra.

“To manage re-openings, schools will need to be logistically prepared with the teaching workforce ready. And they will need to have plans specifically for supporting learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students. The guidelines offer a framework for moving forward that the major UN agencies are aligned around,” he added.

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