“We all want children to return to school and we all want schools to be safe places,” said the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanon Gebreyesus, and stressed that the decision to close schools must be “a last resort, temporary and should only be implemented locally in areas with intense transmission of COVID-19 ”.
In a joint conference with the heads of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Tedros recalled that nine months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many questions remain as to how COVID-19 can attack children and adolescents who, in general, tend to have a mild picture of the disease, although there are serious or even fatal cases and the long-term effects of the infection in these groups are still unknown.
But the interruption of the education of these groups has devastating consequences not only for them but for society as a whole, that is why it is vitally important that they can return to their schools.
“There is no zero risk”
To do this, Tedros said, society has to work together. “Keeping children safe and in school is not just the job of schools, governments or families. It’s everyone’s jobWe must work together ”, he stressed.
The head of the WHO recognized that “there is no zero risk”, but said that with a appropriate combination of measures, children can be protected from contagion and learn that health and education are the most precious goods in life.
In some countries schools have opened; however, according to UNICEF data, one in four still no date for reopening.
The director of that agency, Henrietta Fore, for her part, urged governments to invest again in education and prioritize school reopening when restrictions imposed by the pandemic are lifted.
UNICEF / Josue Mulala
Open schools or bars?
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Director for Emergencies, indicated that the countries of the northern hemisphere are about to start the cold season, in which people spend most of their time in closed spaces, which increases the risk of infection and puts older people at risk of death or vulnerable, “That is general knowledge,” he pointed out.
“The other thing we agree on is that schools are important and that the education of children is a priority. How to combine protection from death to vulnerable people and the return of children to school? We must make sacrifices because we have to keep our guard up against the virus and reduce community transmission to achieve both. And the only way to get them is that adults keep their distance to reduce infections, “he explained.
Ryan was emphatic in asking, “What is more important, that the kids go back to school or that the bars and clubs are open? They are decisions we have to make for the winter months. They are sacrifices and there are no simple or correct answers, the only way we have is to assess the risks, there are no alternatives. “
He added that both governments and societies must participate and commit to this. “That conversation has to happen in many countries now, there are no magic solutions and we must stop looking for amulets”, He pointed.
© UNICEF / Frank Dejongh
Invest in education
The heads of the three agencies highlighted the work that teachers and schools have done in the months of the pandemic so that children continue their learning, even at a distance; However, they pointed out that progress during that period have depended on the capacity of the systems to adapt to a distance education. “Some countries have the resources and infrastructure to do it and others do not,” they noted.
In this sense, they reiterated the importance of investing in all aspects of education in the context of the pandemic: teacher training, physical and digital infrastructure, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, clean water and soap, as well as other health and sanitation measures and information for students and teachers.
To support all governments, regardless of the school reopening phase in which they are, UNESCO, WHO and UNICEF published this week the guide “Elements to consider for public health measures in schools in the context of COVID-19”.
The guide provides practical advice with updated public health information, the same for schools in areas without cases, with sporadic cases, with groups of cases or with community transmission.