Keeping students at home in a bid to protect them from Covid-19 infections is harming them in other ways, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef said in a statement on Friday.
According to the WHO, the impact of an extended education disruption is significant and stretches beyond learning institutions into homes.
“Some of the consequences of extended closure include poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies and overall challenges in the mental development of children due to reduced interaction,” says the WHO.
In Eastern and Southern Africa, Unicef has noted increased violence against children with reduced nutrition rates as more than 10 million are missing school meals.
“For girls, especially those displaced or living in low-income households, the risks of malnutrition and violence are even higher,” the statement reads.
Economic losses caused by the closure are also a cause of worry for economists.
Additionally, parents forced to stay in homes that cannot afford to hire nannies or caregivers are restricted from seeking outside work to boost family incomes.
This may also be worsened by reduced earnings as they stay at home to take care of the children.
The WHO is now urging governments in Africa to promote the safe reopening of schools with proper measures to prevent learners from getting infected with the viral disease.
“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,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
“We must not be blindsided 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,” Dr Moeti added during a press briefing on the WHO statement’s release.
A recent survey by the WHO, carried out in 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, found that schools are fully open in only six countries.
Kenya is yet to reopen schools, with Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha saying on Wednesday that only President Uhuru Kenyatta can decide when they will reopen.
“More than 100,000 schools remain closed across the country but the decision to reopen them lies with President Uhuru. He is the one to decide whether he can take the risk,” Prof Magoha said during a visit to Siaya Technical Institute.
The CS, however, insists that the more than 100,000 schools in the country will only reopen after appropriate Covid-19 prevention guidelines are in place.
Meanwhile, learning institutions are closed in 14 countries and partially open in 19 others for examination purposes.
Currently, 12 countries are planning to resume classroom learning in September, which is the start of the academic year in some countries.
The effect of school closures due to emergencies has been documented before.
For instance, pregnancy rates among teenagers in Sierra Leone doubled, with many girls unable to continue their education when schools reopened after extended closures triggered by the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak.
Unicef Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed Malick Fall, said the closure poses a big risk to future prospects for the self-advancement of affected children.
“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities,”he said.
“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.”
WHO, Unicef and the International Federation of Red Cross have issued a guide on Covid-19 prevention and control in schools.
Included in the guide are recommendations for measures such as wearing masks, discouraging unnecessary touching, cancelling school events that create crowding, spacing desks when possible, providing hand washing facilities, having a different schedule for the beginning and end of the school day and ensuring sick students and teachers stay at home.
WHO and Unicef also recommend regular hand washing, environmental cleaning and decontamination, putting up basic water, sanitation and waste management facilities, as well as daily disinfection and cleaning of surfaces.
The measures could, however, prove difficult to implement in Sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of children attend schools that lack water, sanitation and hygiene services.
According to a WHO and Unicef report assessing progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools between 2000 and 2019, only one in every four schools have basic hygiene services.
An estimated 44 per cent have basic drinking water while 47 per cent have basic sanitation services.
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