In a first, Ministries of Education and Health from more than 20 African countries link up to discuss keeping schools safe and open during COVID-19
Johannesburg – Today, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) will co-convene a virtual dialogue with Ministries of Health (MoH) and Ministries of Education (MoE) on COVID-19 and keeping schools safe and open.
For the first time, representatives from the two ministries from over 20 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa will join to share the latest knowledge and best country practices, as well as put in place action plans that are key for keeping learners and teachers safe, and institutions open.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, 127 million pre-primary, primary and secondary learners were left out of school for months, in some countries for over a year, adding to the 37 million children who were already out of school in the region pre-pandemic. By the beginning of 2021, all countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region had reopened their schools either partially or fully, with all cohorts called upon to return to face- to-face learning – even if only on a rotational basis. The emergence of new variants of the coronavirus and new spikes in infection rates heralded the second wave of the pandemic in several countries, leading to yet more country-wide school closures in affected countries, including Eswatini, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. Currently, there are three countries in the region – Botswana, Uganda and Somalia - that do not have fully open schools.
Lieke van de Wiel, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and South Africa, said, “We can see from the trends and lessons learned across the region that school reopening is far from linear. Today’s event is an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to keep children learning in the COVID era. It is vital that, together, both the education and health sectors in every country are committed to the best interests of children’s holistic development, and to taking a consistent and collaborative approach to keeping schools open and safe. Children are missing out on too much by being at home, by not interacting with their peers, and not learning.”
More than a year after the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is now a better understanding of the role of children and schools in COVID-19 transmission. Evidence points to children being at low risk of contracting the disease and of transmitting the virus, and to schools not being a place of greater transmission than the community when prevention measures are put in place.
“The impact of school closures and learning disruptions has been felt profoundly by millions of children and their families across the region. We can start chipping away at some of the devastation by keeping schools safely open through effective COVID-19 prevention,” said Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, the Regional Emergency Director at WHO Regional Office for Africa. “The measures to contain the pandemic must not cause deeper harm. All efforts must be made to maintain children’s learning while safeguarding their health.”
Hosting partners and attending countries will share the latest knowledge and promising practices, as well as work together to produce action plans on COVID-19, children and schools, focusing on the following areas;
- Coordinating policy and decision-making, with clear roles and responsibilities between MoE and MoH as well as other frontline ministries. For example, in South Africa, systematic partnerships between MoE and MoH, other frontline ministries and civil society at the national and subnational level have led to evidence-based, joint decision-making on COVID-19, children and schools reopening and closing.
- Monitoring and managing COVID-19 in schools by putting in place effective and transparent surveillance systems, and information flows, between local and national levels. For example, in Malawi, the surveillance system starts with data collection at the local school level, with reporting to MoH at the district and national levels, who then share the information with MoE for evidence-based decision-making on school reopening and closing.
- School-based transmission prevention and risk mitigation via effective interventions such as Infection Prevention Control measures at the school and community level. For example, in Eswatini, schools are regularly assessed on their adherence to school reopening procedures.
- Consultative and responsive engagement of community stakeholders in the planning, implementation and monitoring of school reopening by building on existing, multisectoral, community coordination platforms. In Namibia, for example, schools have Integrated School Health taskforces that include representatives from the wider community.
Today’s event is the first of two joint Ministry of Education-Ministry of Health continental dialogues, with the next one being planned for the West and Central Africa region later this year. UNICEF’s Framework for Reopening Schools, issued jointly with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP and the World Bank, offers practical advice for national and local authorities. The guidelines focus on policy reform; financing requirements; safe operations; compensatory learning; wellness and protection and reaching the most marginalized children.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.
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In Africa, WHO serves 47 Member States and works with development partners to improve the health and well-being of all people living here. The WHO Regional Office for Africa is located in Brazzaville, Congo. Learn more at www.afro.who.int and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.