World Health Organisation and UNICEF urge safe school reopening in Africa

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The unprecedented and prolonged school closures aimed at keeping learners safe from Covid-19 are harming them in other ways, World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF acknowledged this afternoon during the weekly WHO African Region media briefing.

Both entities urged governments in Africa to promote the safe reopening of schools while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa said 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 countries and partially open in 19 others. About a dozen countries are planning to resume classroom learning in September, which is the start of the academic year in some countries,” said Moeti.

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

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In Eastern and Southern Africa, UNICEF found that incidents of violence against children increased while nutrition rates are down with more than 10 million children missing school meals.

“The long-term social and economic impact of extended school shutdown is also concerning. According to a World Bank modelling, school closures in sub-Saharan Africa could result in lifetime earning losses of US$ 4500 per child.

“This may also be worsened by reduced earning of the parents who are forced to stay at home to take care of the children especially in households that cannot afford child care services.

“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,” said Moeti.

“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 and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.”

WHO, UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross issued guidance on Covid-19 prevention and control in schools.

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The guidance includes recommendations for physical distancing measures such as staggering the beginning and end of the school day, cancelling school events that create crowding, spacing desks when possible, providing handwashing facilities, wearing masks, discouraging unnecessary touching and ensuring that sick students and teachers stay at home.

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities,” said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall.

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

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

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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 per cent of them have basic drinking water and 47 per cent cent have basic sanitation services.

“As such, this is the moment to take an opportunity from a crisis, and for investment and innovative thinking.”

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