UNICEF has called on governments, parents and teachers across Eastern and Southern Africa to urgently and safely re-open schools, as the costs of continued school closures escalate across Eastern and Southern Africa.
While there are encouraging reports that 13 out of 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have returned children to classrooms, with an additional four having set return dates, countries such as Kenya – with a huge student population – are still to decide on whether they will reopen schools this year, compounding the threats which out-of-school children face.
UNICEF’s call to safely re-open schools follows scientific evidence which shows children are not super-spreaders of COVID-19, and are the least affected by COVID-19 in the region, with a mere 2.5 per cent of COVID-19 cases attributed to children of school-going age (5-18 years, WHO).
“Much effort was spent at the start of this pandemic reminding all of the dangers of COVID-19 and necessary precautions,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, Regional Director for UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa. “Things have evolved – we now know greater dangers for children lie by being outside the classroom. That message needs to be heard.”
Across this region, of the nearly 65 million children remaining out of school, around one in two are not reached by any form of learning.
Meanwhile, violence has spiked. Across the region, millions of children continue to miss what was their one nutritious meal of the day.
“Seven months into the pandemic, we must be very clear about the gravity of this crisis: we are at risk of losing a generation,” said Fall. “We see lost learning, rising violence, rising child labour, forced child marriages, teen pregnancies and diminished nutrition. A generation of children is at risk, and at the most critical time in our continent’s history.
“We are at a time of unprecedented population growth,” continued Fall. “If this expanded workforce can receive quality learning at school, the potential for increased production could sustain an economic boom to drastically reduce poverty in Africa – where currently 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s people live on less than US$ 2/day.”
It can be done. Safely re-opening schools by the beginning of October this year will give scholars a full term and vastly reduce learning losses.
A third term for learners presents the last chance to recoup learning losses for 2020 and avert the dangers of permanent school drop-outs.
Re-opening will also reduce losses incurred by both parents and governments.
Critically, there is growing regional and global practice showing that safe school re-opening can be done with political will and community commitment.
Most countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have seen the rationale of a phased return to schools, starting with exam classes in countries such as Botswana, Eritrea, Eswatini, Madagascar, Somalia, Zambia, and recently Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Bigger countries with larger COVID-19 caseloads and higher student populations – such as South Africa – have reopened schools for all grades since the end of August.
“UNICEF is here to support countries, and share working practices on safely re-opening schools; examples that can be applied to our context,” said Fall.