The best interests of children and overall public health considerations – based on an assessment of the associated benefits and risks to education, public health and socio-economic factors – must be central to national and local authorities’ decisions to reopen schools, according to the guidelines issued by UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank on the safe reopening of schools amidst ongoing closures due to COVID-19 pandemic affecting nearly 1.3 billion students worldwide.
The guidelines caution that the widespread closures of educational facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic present an unprecedented risk to children’s education and wellbeing, particularly for the most marginalized children who rely on school for their education, health, safety and nutrition.
The guidelines offer practical advice for national and local authorities on how to keep children safe when they return to school.
“While many students are falling behind in their learning journey because of prolonged school closures, the far from straightforward decision of when and how to reopen schools, should be a priority,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return. Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”
The guidelines note that while there is not yet enough evidence to measure the impact of school closures on disease transmission rates, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety and learning are well documented. Gains made in increasing access to children’s education in recent decades risk being lost and, in the worse cases, reversed completely.
Schools must look at how they can reopen better – with improved learning and more comprehensive support for children at the school including health, nutrition, psychosocial support and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, UNESCO said in a statement released on Thursday.
As countries grapple with when to reopen schools, UNESCO, UNICEF and WFP – as part of the Global Education Coalition – urge governments to assess the benefits of classroom-based instruction compared to remote learning, and the risk factors related to reopening of schools, noting the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance.