Returning to school safe and heathy

UNICEF supports schools in Afghanistan to reopen after COVID-19 shut them down

By Abeer Maqbool
06 October 2021

ZABUL, AFGHANISTAN – For more than a year and a half, students across Afghanistan had to stay home due to COVID-19 related school closures. And just as schools were reopening again, the turmoil in Afghanistan extended school closures for even longer.

In mid-September, schools were finally open for girls and boys in grades 1 to 6, and millions of primary school student were ready to rejoin classrooms. Yet the months of closures due to the impact of COVID-19 meant that there were still hurdles facing the safe return of children to schools.

Nine-year-old Samira from Zabul had spent the past months at home like many of her friends from school. And now that their school is open again, they found that the water and sanitation facilities were not working after months of neglect.

“Our school didn’t have a place where I can wash my hands and we did not have clean drinking water,” says Samira. “My classmates and I were getting sick because of the water.”

Samira, was often complaining about her health condition to her parents, her father was hardly managing to get medicines for his children, with only AFN 3,200 – the equivalent of US$ 40 -  he was making per month. 

“Sometimes I was bringing drinking water from home,” says Samira. “I had to share my water with my classmates.”

The poor hygiene and sanitation conditions contribute to the high spread of diarrhea fever and vomiting diseases among children, which affected their studies and school attendance.

In Afghanistan the Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) situation in schools remains a major challenge, with more than a third of schools without access to an improved water resource within school premises; half of all schools without sanitation facilities; and two thirds without hand-washing facilities. The need for WASH facilities was exacerbated following the spread of COVID-19 early 2020.

Handwashing facility
UNICEF/Afghanistan/2021/Ajmal Sherzai

With funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNICEF and partners provided 1,250 public schools in 10 provinces with handwashing stations, soap, and clean water, benefiting 625,000 students as part of the COVID-19 response.

All 625,000 students and 20,000 teachers also received teaching and learning materials needed to carry out their lessons with the aim to reduce the burden of school costs on households.

The school where Samira is learning, is one of the 75 schools in Zabul Province receiving handwashing stations, hygiene kits, and clean drinking water supply through UNICEF support.

“Thanks to UNICEF, with the installation of hand washing and drinking water station, we have access to clean drinking water,” says Samira. “We are now practicing hand-washing with soap before entering the classroom and after using the latrine.”

Samira and other children in her school can now focus more on their studies, as their health condition has been improved.

“My parents were so happy when they learned my school was equipped with clean drinking water,” says Samira. “They will no more worry about my health."

The project also raised children’s awareness on measures to prevent COVID-19 and other communicable diseases at school and in the every-day life.

“After arriving home, I told my family about benefits of handwashing, and asked my father to buy a soap and start this practice in home,” says Samira.

“With so many challenges facing children’s access to education in Afghanistan it is critical to ensure a safe and healthy return to schools for those who are able to come back. Too much learning time has been lost and we must do everything we can to support Afghan children and assist them to learn amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” says Abeer Maqbool, UNICEF Education Specialist.

“For this reason, UNICEF and our partners are delivering a package of water and sanitation services at public schools in hard-to-reach areas and high-risk provinces.”

Thanks to the generous support of GPE, the learning environment of 1,250 schools are improving with clean water and hygiene facilities, WASH and health guidelines as well as learning supplies, sensitization and capacity building for school staff.