DURBAN – The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF is calling on governments in Africa to promote the safe reopening of schools while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus. The unprecedented and prolonged school closures aimed at keeping students safe from Covid-19 are harming them in other ways, say the organisations.
In South African public schools only grade 12 and seven learners are back at school. According to the new amended school calendar, all other grades are expected to return from 24 August. While private schools have remained open, a move slammed by the Paediatrician Management Group (PMG) and the South African Paediatric Association (SAPA).
The paediatricians argue that the decision was not based on scientific evidence, and the benefits to children of attending school outweighed the risks to both children and the broader community.
A survey conducted by the WHO in 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 (exam classes) in 19 others. Around a dozen countries are planning to resume classroom learning in September, which is the start of the academic year in some countries.
Speaking during a virtual press conference WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti said 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.
“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.”
The study also found that the impact of extended education disruption is significant. It includes among others: 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.
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 earnings 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.
“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 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.
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