The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are pushing for the safe reopening of schools despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic now well into its second year, safely reopening schools has become an urgent priority. School attendance is critical for children’s education and lifetime prospects,” said WHO Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai and UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof in a statement.
The officials pointed out that countries should now focus on using what is known about COVID-19 to work towards the safe reopening of schools.
Kasai and Hulshof cited that there were already pieces of evidence that show COVID-19 does not pose a high risk to children in primary schools, preschools, and early childhood development (ECD) centers, and that face-to-face schooling is not a driver of infection spikes as long as safety measures are strictly observed.
Several measures to reduce COVID-19 exposure and transmission include personal hygiene practices, proper mask use, physical distancing, adequate ventilation, and regular cleaning and disinfection of surfaces.
“Children of primary-school age and younger are among the least likely cohorts to be infected. And even when they do contract COVID-19, they tend to have milder symptoms than adults,” they said.
However, the officials warned about the reopening of secondary schools, saying it has accounted for a higher number of outbreaks than primary schools.
“Partial closures for secondary schools should remain an option, but only as a last resort and for limited periods where community transmission is surging,” they added.
Kasai and Hulshof also highlighted that prolonged school closures have a significant impact not only on the skills attainment and learning prospects of the children but also on their physical and mental health.
“While online education can guarantee some continuity of learning for some children, these services are no substitute for in-person attendance,” they said.
The officials also said that COVID-19 had increased the anxiety, depression, and self-harm among school-aged children since the start of the pandemic.
“Children who are not in the classroom also experience increased loneliness, difficulty in concentrating, and high levels of learning anxiety. These problems will only grow worse the longer schools remain closed,” they said.
The WHO officials added that school closures have also led to reduced physical activity, poor eating habits, and disrupted sleep patterns of children.
“For some children, more time at home has increased the risk of domestic violence, just as more screen time has exacerbated the risks of online harm. And with schools closed, a critical avenue for identifying and reporting abuse and mental-health issues has been closed off,” they added.
While there is no such thing as zero risk against the disease, the officials said the risks are manageable with robust mitigation strategies.
They urged policymakers to also “consider the local context for resuming in-school learning, including factors such as the level of community transmission and the capacity to respond to an increase in infections.” “In some places, health and education services will need additional resources to implement the necessary safety measures,” they added.
They added that school reopening is not dependent on COVID-19 vaccines.
“We need to work toward a sustainable “new normal” right now. While the relatively low risks of children being in school are easily managed, the consequences of keeping them out of their classrooms are grave and far-reaching. It is time for the school gates to reopen,” they said.
In the Philippines, schools were closed and students from all levels stopped attending face-to-face classes due to the threat of COVID-19 in March last year.
Earlier this year, the Department of Education (DepEd) was supposed to hold a pilot run of limited face-to-face classes in select areas but President Duterte directed the agency to postpone it after the more infectious COVID-19 variants were detected in the country.