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School Closures Due to COVID Should Be Temporary -WHO

According to the UN agencies, prolonged closure of schools stops learning from taking place, which will leave children vulnerable. They say the government should prioritise the re-opening of schools as lockdowns are lifted, and develop frameworks to ensure safe environments.
School children in class in Katakwi, Eastern Uganda.
The World Health Organisation is urging governments to re-open schools and only close them when extremely necessary, for short periods, as a measure to control the spread of COVID-19.

The UN health agency made the call during a meeting on Tuesday,  where other UN agencies- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)  echoed the same message.

According to the UN agencies, prolonged closure of schools stops learning from taking place, which will leave children vulnerable. They say the government should prioritise the re-opening of schools as lockdowns are lifted, and develop frameworks to ensure safe environments.

As part of the frameworks, the agencies recommend that remote learning be used for learners aged 13 and above since they are more susceptible to being infected with the disease compared to their counterparts in lower classes who are less likely to be infected with the disease. 

Governments are also being advised to start school re-openings by allowing a few learners at a time to access education institutions. In addition to this, the UN agencies want governments to plan for continuous disinfection of school surfaces and to also set up policies that will ensure sick learners or school staff self-isolate.

Dr Tedros Adhanom, the director-general of the World Health Organisation says that to avoid disruptions in learning, school closures, if unavoidable, should be done for short periods. 

"Given the devastating consequences on children, youth and our societies as a whole, the decision to close schools should be a last resort, temporary and only at a local level in areas with intense transmission. During school closures, continuity of education should be guaranteed through distance learning. The time during which schools are closed should be used to put in place measures to prevent and respond to the transmission when schools reopen," Dr Adhanom said.

Due to nationwide lockdowns that many countries instituted in the response of COVID-19, a global analysis carried out by UNICEF on the ability of remote learning due this period shows that at least 463 million learners are not able to access learning due to the lack of policy and equipment in homes.

Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF says that governments need to re-open schools because keeping children out of schools is not an option when many are not learning. She says, instead of closing schools, governments need to plan to cater for continued learning outside of classrooms.

"Many countries today are reporting community transmissions but schools are part of these communities and they cannot be cut off forever. Just as communities are learning to cope with the new normal, so can schools. In situations where this is not possible, governments need to start planning for how they can ensure that learning continues by budgeting for things like internet access to all homes," 

Uganda has lifted its national lockdown by over 80 per cent with only schools, Churches and entertainment facilities still closed. An estimated 15 million learners have been home for the last six months following the closure of schools.

With no clear standard operating procedures on how schools can re-open and the lack of government's decision, that fate of many Ugandan learned remains unknown.