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Promoting Safe School Reopening in Africa

Reopening schools must be a priority as COVID-19 lockdowns ease. Around a dozen countries are planning to resume classroom learning in September, which is the start of the academic year in some countries. When children attend school they not only have an easier time learning they have access to social support, hand washing facilities and nutritious meals.

Closures happened in quick sequence as a measure to contain the Covid-19 virus. By early April, an astonishing 1.5 billion young people were staying home as part of broader shutdowns to protect people from the novel coronavirus. The drastic measures worked in many places, dramatically slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Just as speedily, governments deployed measures for learning to continue through platforms, television and radio in what has been the most far-reaching experiment in the history of education. Over 100 countries are currently implementing nationwide school closures due to COVID-19, affecting over 60% of the world’s enrolled students, the latest UNESCO figures noted.

The World Bank outlined that, 87 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa are learning poor and lack functional skills in a dynamic labor market. While the shutdown only creates a temporary out-of-school problem, prolonged closure can make being out of school permanent for some children, especially older ones that might be more easily lured into precarious job markets. This will add to the millions of children that were already out of school prior to the pandemic.

Even though, there is not enough evidence to measure the impact on disease transmission rates. But the risks to children’s learning, safety and wellbeing are well documented. The longer children are out of school, the greater the risk of sexual violence, child labour and child marriage.

Online education is often a pale shadow of the real thing and left many parents juggling jobs and childcare. As half the world’s students don’t have access to a household computer, the chance of learning loss over this period is nearly inevitable.

Schools are not only places of learning. They provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support that are a life security for the most disadvantaged, and this applies in all countries, from low to high income. The World Food Programme estimates that 370 million children are not receiving school meals as a result of school closures. Lower-income children who depend on school meals were going hungry.

The decision is complex because the pandemic continues to evolve, and not in linear manner. There is insufficient evidence on risks of transmission. Everywhere, confinement will be lifted gradually, with many question marks on how the process will be managed, to a great extent because there are many characteristics of the virus that we just don’t know. Yet, even with the current uncertainties, governments can anticipate and prepare to reopen schools successfully, putting the necessary safeguards in place.

Openings are usually for a few age groups only often younger children and not always in every part of the country. They are generally accompanied by mandating hygiene and social distancing measures and in many places test and trace systems were implemented ahead of school reopening.

The topic of reopening primary and secondary schools has been heavily politicised in many countries with parents, teachers, and politicians sometimes at odds over when to reopen. Policy decisions are even more challenging given the lack of evidence, especially from developing countries, on how susceptible children are to contracting COVID-19 and transmitting the virus to adults and how to make schools safe enough for students to return.

In developing countries, adults and the elderly generally have more contact with children than those in advanced economies due to factors such as more crowded living conditions and bigger households. Lower-income nations face a very different set of circumstances to high-income countries when it comes to reopen schools after lockdown.

Schooling will remain one of Africa’s most-affected sectors by COVID-19 pandemic

Children live with adults, and particularly in lower-income elderly adults. UN data notes that, the proportion of elderly people who live with at least one child under 20 is more than 10% in most African countries, compared to less than 1% in European countries and the United States. This raises the risk that children may contract the virus at school and transmit it to parents and grandparents at home.

The options for African students to keep studying while schools remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic seem to vary, but the reality for many is that they fell behind and possibly drop out of school forever worsening inequality on an already unequal continent.

The World Bank modelling indicates that, school closures in sub-Saharan Africa could result in lifetime earning losses of $4,500 for each child. This may also be exacerbated by reducing earnings of parents forced to stay at home to take care of children, especially in households that cannot afford child care services.

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 has basic sanitation services, according to a WHO and UNICEF report assessing progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools between 2000 and 2019.

This is the moment to take an opportunity from a crisis, and for investment and innovative thinking. As school reopen, there are quick solutions to handwashing in schools, such as a tap, bucket and soap.

How prepared are schools to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread among the students?

Despite the fact that, African governments have been gradually easing restrictions and reopening their economies, most have yet to find the right formula to reopen schools, with some countries closing them again after reopening them. Some countries only reopened them for final year students to write their final year exams and some postponing learning, citing the fact they are not out of the woods yet.

In June 2020, there have been coronavirus infections among learners and teachers since the resumption of classes in South Africa, 968 schools out of the total number of 25,762 schools were closed due to transmissions among teachers and learners after the first phase of school reopening.

Experts have discouraged the opening of classes in a context of the uncontrolled flow of virus spread and constant increase in the number of new contagions. Even though most governments plan to implement barrier measures in schools, it is difficult to enforce them by students for two main reasons. Stating that the recklessness of the students linked to their age (the term is not used in the pejorative sense) which does not guarantee strict compliance with the rules, even if teachers are asked to strictly monitor them. In addition, the lack of control over the children’s actual route from their home to school and vice versa. If some privileged people are transported by their parents, the majority of learners travel unattended.

Imperatives for reopening schools

As schools make plans to reopen after COVID-19 shutdowns, it can’t be business as usual. The only valid condition would be total control of the propagation flow, the main indicators of which should be a significant decline. Governments will need to use regional/state and sub-regional/state new case data to make decisions about localised school closures if spikes in new cases occur.

Limiting the number of students on site, through double shifts, prioritizing early grades or particular target groups, or continuing with a blended learning approach.

Sanitary yardsticks must, therefore, be reinforced to limit the spread. Currently, they do not seem sufficient since the situation is not improving. The countries that have lifted the restrictive measures have seen the number of new infections double.

Among the measures schools must observe are temperature checks, compulsory mask-wearing, disinfectants at all points of entry to their major facilities including the gates, hostels, classes, offices; customized school buses and designated routes to classrooms to prevent the gathering of crowds.

Returning learners must be required to produce indemnity forms signed by their parents granting them permission to resume classes. Teachers should be given forms to complete for approval for them to work from home.

With appropriate copyright negotiation, learning materials can be mass produced using local resources. Mobilization of private sector resources and other innovative solutions is also needed. In all of this, peer learning about what works both within and outside a locality is essential.

Parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children back to school register them for online schooling provided by the education department or employing education using SMS messages which can improve learning even while schools are in session.

The risk of some students, particularly those of secondary age, that have been disengaged for a long period from school to never return is very high. That risk has to be reduced by active public policy, such as communication campaigns targeting those most at risk, engaging with families and communities, or providing scholarships.

Governments and relevant stakeholders should partner to invest in better schools and reach the most vulnerable children. This includes making clean water, nutritious meals, psychosocial support and access to the Internet available for every child.

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