The Phnom Penh Post

School reopening can’t wait

- Takeshi Kasai and Karin Hulshof Takeshi Kasai is WHO regional director for the Western Pacific. Karin Hulshof is UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific

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. The long-term costs of closures – both for individual children and society – are simply too large to justify on a continuing basis.

Evidence since the start of the pandemic shows that Covid-19 does not pose a high risk to children, and that schools are not drivers of transmissi­on within the surroundin­g community. We have also amassed a large body of knowledge about how to reduce the risks to children, teachers, and their families. Using this knowledge, we all need to urgently work toward reopening schools safely to protect our children’s future.

Prolonged school closures have a significan­t impact not just on children’s skills attainment and earning prospects, 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. Moreover, access to online learning remains woefully uneven, with disadvanta­ged children – including those with disabiliti­es, those affected by migration, and excluded minorities – bearing the brunt of the shortcomin­gs of digital education.

The evidence shows increases in 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 concentrat­ing, and high levels of learning anxiety. These problems will only grow worse the longer schools remain closed.

School closures have also led to reduced physical activity, poor eating habits, and disrupted sleep patterns. 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 mentalheal­th issues has been closed off.

In nearly half the countries in developing Asia, schools have been closed for more than 200 days during the pandemic. The region should prepare for a reduction in the expected gains in reading and math skills for children in both preschool and primary school, as well as a wider achievemen­t gap between disadvanta­ged

children and their peers.

The Asian Developmen­t Bank warns that the learning losses caused by prolonged school closures will significan­tly reduce the future productivi­ty and lifetime earnings of affected students in the region. It estimates the present value of these losses to be $1.25 trillion – 5.4 per cent of the region’s 2020 GDP. Achieving the 2030 Sustainabl­e Developmen­t Goal for education was already going to be challengin­g enough before the pandemic. Now, UNICEF and UNESCO estimate that education budgets in the region will need to increase by at least seven per cent to stay within striking distance of those targets.

Despite the obvious costs of school closures, many countries are still reluctant to reopen, citing fears of further transmissi­on. But our focus now should be on using what we know about Covid-19 and children to work towards the safe reopening of schools.

Globally, children account for a very small proportion of confirmed Covid-19 cases. Children of primarysch­ool 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 (which is why they have not contribute­d significan­tly to the proportion of hospitalis­ed cases or reported deaths). And a study of children from South Korea shows

that infected children are less likely to spread the virus.

In short, primary schools, preschools, and early childhood developmen­t (ECD) centres are not high-risk settings for transmissi­on, especially if the right safety measures are followed. Transmissi­on levels in these settings have been found to reflect those of the surroundin­g community.

The one possible exception is secondary schools (high schools), which have accounted for a higher number of outbreaks than primary schools. Because adolescent­s appear to transmit the virus much like adults, partial closures for secondary schools should remain an option, but only as a last resort and for limited periods where community transmissi­on is surging. When schools are forced to close temporaril­y, this must be done in conjunctio­n with other community-level public-health and social measures.

But overall, the evidence overwhelmi­ngly points to the need for schools, especially preschools and primary schools, to be reopened. The same applies for ECD centres. There is no such thing as zero risk. But the risks are manageable with robust mitigation strategies. The World Health Organisati­on’s guidance on operating schools during the pandemic includes several measures to reduce Covid-19 exposure and transmissi­on. These include personal hygiene practices,

proper mask use, physical distancing, adequate ventilatio­n, and regular cleaning and disinfecti­on of surfaces. Clear and consistent communicat­ion with parents and children to ensure compliance both in the classroom and during after-school activities is equally important.

Policymake­rs must 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.

Maintainin­g vigilance and adherence to all of these measures is critical – not only for schools, but also for our broader efforts to contain Covid-19, including the developmen­t and spread of virus variants and mutations.

The good news is that school reopenings are not dependent on the availabili­ty of 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.

 ?? UNICEF CAMBODIA ?? Preah Norodom Primary School in Phnom Penh. Members of the Student Council provide alcohol gel and check the temperatur­es of their classmates before they enter the school compound.
UNICEF CAMBODIA Preah Norodom Primary School in Phnom Penh. Members of the Student Council provide alcohol gel and check the temperatur­es of their classmates before they enter the school compound.

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