By Sharon Atieno

The unprecedented and prolonged school closures aimed at keeping students safe from COVID-19 are harming them in other ways, World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF said today, urging governments in Africa to promote the safe reopening of schools while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus.

“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 & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall during a virtual briefing.

“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.”

“The decision to open schools or not, amid the pandemic, is a difficult one. But we must find the right balance to avoid trading one adversity for another,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

“The longer that children are out of school, the greater the risk that they may not return. School closures are potentially exacerbating risks of teenage pregnancies, violence against children, of substance abuse, of anxiety, loneliness and isolation.”

In Eastern and Southern Africa, UNICEF finds that violence rates against children are up, while nutrition rates are down with more than 10 million children missing school meals. For girls, especially those who are displaced or living in low-income households, the risks are even higher.

Of concern also, is the long-term social and economic impact of extended school shutdown as a modelling of the World Bank estimates that school closures would result in lifetime earning losses of US$ 4500 per child.

“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 Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

“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 have issued guidance on COVID-19 prevention and control in schools. 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.

However, millions of children attend schools that lack water, sanitation and hygiene services. In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services, 44% of them have basic drinking water and 47% cent have basic sanitation services, according to a WHO and UNICEF report assessing progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools between 2000 and 2019.

So far, a WHO survey of 39 countries has found that only six countries have opened schools fully in sub-Saharan Africa whereas in 19 countries schools are partially open (exam classes) and in 14 schools are closed.