UNICEF and UNESCO have called for reopening of schools saying it has been 18 months since the COVID-19 outbreak started and education for millions of children is still disrupted.
“This should not go on. Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a joint statement on Monday.
As of today, primary and secondary schools are shuttered in 19 countries, affecting over 156 million students.
Ahead of the Global Education Meeting on July 13, they urged decision makers and governments to prioritize the safe reopening of schools to avoid a generational catastrophe.
“Closing schools mortgages our future for unclear benefits to our present. We must prioritize better. We can reopen schools safely, and we must.”
“In their efforts to limit transmission, governments have too often shut down schools and kept them closed for prolonged periods, even when the epidemiological situation didn’t warrant it," said Fore and Azoulay.
These actions were frequently taken as a first recourse rather than a last measure.
In many cases, schools were closed while bars and restaurants remained open.
“The losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped," they said.
From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health.
"The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages," said Fore and Azoulay.
The losses for parents and caretakers are equally heavy, they said adding that keeping children at home is forcing parents around the world to leave their jobs, especially in countries with no or limited family leave policies.
“That’s why reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait," said Fore and Azoulay.
They said it cannot wait for cases to go to zero and there is clear evidence that primary and secondary schools are not among the main drivers of transmission.
"Meanwhile, the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools is manageable with appropriate mitigation strategies in most settings. The decision to open or close schools should be based on risk analysis and the epidemiological considerations in the communities where they are situated."
They said reopening schools cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated.
"With the global vaccine shortages plaguing low and middle-income countries, vaccinating frontline workers and those most at risk of severe illness and death will remain a priority. All schools should provide in-person learning as soon as possible, without barriers to access, including not mandating vaccination prior to school entry," said Fore and Azoulay.