Schools remain shut in 19 countries due to the pandemic, affecting 156 million children globally. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) called this “a generational catastrophe” and that the re-opening of schools cannot wait.
Unicef’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore said the losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped.
“From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills.
“The consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health,” said Fore.
Audrey Azoulay, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Director-General said the most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages.
“That’s why reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait.
“It [the reopening] cannot wait for [Covid-19] cases to go to zero.
“There is clear evidence that primary and secondary schools are not among the main drivers of transmission. Meanwhile, the risk of Covid-19 transmission in schools is manageable with appropriate mitigation strategies in most settings,” said Azoulay.
South Africa has itself been battling with the decision to open schools or keep them shut amid the coronavirus third wave.
Schools were initially supposed to open on Monday, 19 July. The decision to extend the winter holidays was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa who said all schools will open on 26 July because the country was deep inside the third wave infections.
Non-profit organisation Equal Education said it supports the government’s decision to open schools amid the country’s third Covid-19 wave. The organisation said closing schools is detrimental for many pupils who depend on schools for meals and counselling.
“Our schools are not only places of learning – they are where learners need to get a meal, through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP).
“Child hunger is almost double what it was before the pandemic. Less than half of children (43%) received a free school meals in February and March 2021, showing receipt is still well below pre-pandemic levels (65%), and possibly even November/December 2020 levels (49%), said Equal Education Communications Officer Jay-Dee Cyster.
Unicef’s Fore said the decision to open or close schools should be based on risk analysis and the epidemiological considerations in the communities where they are situated.
“Reopening schools cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated.
“With the global vaccine shortages plaguing low and middle-income countries, vaccinating frontline workers and those most at risk of severe illness and death will remain a priority,” said Fore.
Adding that the effects of school closures are dire, ranging from lower educational achievement to mental health problems, as well as increased malnutrition.
“Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen,” said Fore
“We urge decision-makers and governments to prioritise the safe reopening of schools to avoid a generational catastrophe,” added Azoulay.
Adding that closing schools mortgages our future for unclear benefits to our present.
“We must prioritise better. We can re-open schools safely, and we must,” said Azoulay.