Parents and children protest against the opening of schools, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, United States, September 14, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
The disruption to schools caused by the coronavirus pandemic constitutes a “global education emergency” that threatens to derail the education of at least 24 million students who are expected to drop out of school as a result, Henrietta Fore has said. , Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund. .
‘At the height of Covid-19’, 192 countries closed schools, leaving 1.6 billion students without in-person learning, Fore said during a press call organized by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She added that today more than 870 million students, “half of the world’s student population in 51 countries”, are still unable to return to school.
“The longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return,” she said. “That’s why we’re urging governments to prioritize reopening schools when restrictions are lifted.”
She added that beyond education, schools around the world are providing many students with a source of nutrition and vaccinations.
“At least 24 million children are expected to drop out of school due to Covid-19,” she said.
Many schools went online in the spring as the virus spread around the world, turning to virtual education to replace in-person learning. Education experts, however, have acknowledged the shortcomings of virtual learning, saying it cannot replace in-person teaching. Fore said more than 460 million students around the world lack internet access, computers or mobile devices to participate in virtual learning while their schools are closed.
“We know that closing schools for long periods [has] devastating consequences for children,” she said. “They become more exposed to physical and emotional abuse. Their mental health is affected. They are more vulnerable to child labor, sexual abuse and are less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.”
The reopening of schools has become a hot topic, especially in the United States, where the president donald trump pushed to reopen schools, regardless of the extent of the spread of the virus in the community. Public health officials have stressed the importance of reopening schools for in-person learning, but have acknowledged that the virus poses a risk to young people. While young people generally do not get as sick from Covid-19 as older people, the long-term health consequences of Covid-19 infection in young people are still being researched, and some young people died of the disease.
Public health experts, including White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said the best way to reopen schools is to contain the virus in the community. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said on Tuesday it was possible to reopen schools safely with new protocols. She added that it will be necessary to “rethink the role and the training of teachers”.
UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO jointly published on Monday a 10 page document which outlines guidelines for reopening and operating schools during the pandemic.
“It is of the utmost importance that education and health work closely together to ensure that schools reopen safely as a priority,” she said. “When we deal with education, the decision we make today will impact the world of tomorrow.”
The guidelines from UN agencies detail a number of measures for communities, schools, classrooms and individuals to consider when deciding whether to reopen or attend school. Some of the policy measures include encouraging students to stay home if they believe they have been exposed to the virus and schools ensuring adequate ventilation in indoor classrooms.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that “many questions remain, but we are starting to get a clearer picture” of how the virus affects children. He repeated that the virus can kill children, although it is rare, and that children can become infected and transmit the virus to others. Tedros added that more research is needed to find out what increases the risk of death in children as well as potential long-term health complications from Covid-19.
Tedros said the risk of reopening schools amid the pandemic will be determined by each community’s ability to bring the virus under control through proven public health measures, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, tracing and isolation. In places where there are no or few new cases of the virus, “the decision to close schools should be a last resort.”
“Although children were largely spared, many of the most severe health effects of the virus were suffered in other ways,” he said. “Millions of children have missed months of schooling. We all want to see children back in school and we all want to make sure schools are the safe and supportive learning environments they should be.”