The case for safely reopening schools in Ethiopia

COVID-19 Update

By Adele Khodr, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia
distance learning
01 October 2020

For more than six months, children in Ethiopia have been out of the classroom. Over 26 million students have been affected by the closure of schools, and more than 700,000 teachers and school management employees have not been working since mid-March when schools closed. This unprecedented disruption has been replicated across the globe and the region, as COVID-19 has shut down schools in 20 out of 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. Although some children have been able to access online and distance learning, many - especially those in remote rural areas - have not, a clear sign that the digital divide remains wide. As many as one in two children may have gone without any form of education in this period. The toll - on individual students and the economy at large - will be deep and lasting.

Encouragingly, the government has just announced a reopening of schools in Ethiopia. By August 2020, 100 countries had either reopened or were ready to reopen schools. In Africa, where lockdown measures are being slowly lifted and where the spread of the coronavirus seems to be gradually slowing, many countries are accelerating plans for reopening schools.

In Ethiopia, a state-of-emergency, which had been declared in April 2020 to halt the spread of the coronavirus, ended in early September. On September 18th, the Minister of Health advised Parliament that it was possible to reopen schools provided certain conditions were met. Grades 8 and 12 will soon return to the classroom (for at least three weeks) in order to sit for national exams and the reopening will gradually be extended to other grades.

Many parents and teachers worry about the risks which reopening entails. Preliminary findings by the Ministry of Education showed that 90 per cent of families wanted the schools to reopen but needed assurances on COVID-19 preventive measures. This fear is understandable but unjustified. The vast majority of children display mild symptoms of COVID-19 and recover well. Evidence from Ireland, Iceland and Italy following the reopening of schools indicates that children are not “super-spreaders”. The consequences of keeping schools closed far outweigh the health risks caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This is even more pronounced in poor countries than in rich ones, where on average populations are younger.

By staying out of school, not only are children not learning, they are also forgetting what they learnt. As we have argued before, online education is no substitute for face-to-face learning in brick and mortar classrooms, where this can be done safely and with the necessary social interaction. Today, around 50 per cent of grade eight students in Ethiopia are unable to read and write. Prolonged school closures risk further worsening already weak learning outcomes - which is reason enough to act swiftly. In some scenarios, children in grades eight and below could slip back three years in terms of their learning outcomes[1]. Moreover, the impact of disruption is felt unevenly. The longer poor and marginalized children stay out of school, the more likely they are to drop out. Children from the poorest households are already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from the richest.

Schools are often places where children are fed. Here in Ethiopia, the closure of schools has deprived about one million children from the poorest families of school meals, which are a valuable source of nutrition. It has also deprived vulnerable children of a safe and secure environment free from dangers they may face in their homes or communities. By staying home for a prolonged period, children are more at risk of violence and abuse. Many child helplines in urban southern Africa show a doubling of reported cases of child abuse. In Ethiopia, the situation is equally alarming. Already in June, the Women and Children Affairs Bureau noted the worrying increase in cases of girls being raped and emphasized that the closure of schools had resulted in cases not being reported.

For these reasons and more, UNICEF and partners have been working closely with the Ministry of Education to adapt the global guidance for reopening schools.  Although an entirely risk-free reopening is impossible, much can be done to make the schools safer. The Ministry of Education currently estimates that it needs about US$135m to improve school readiness for safe reopening in the era of COVID-19. So far, US$15m has been raised from the Global Partnership for Education, US$5m from the World Bank, and US$500,000 from the UN OCHA’s Ethiopia Humanitarian Fund, leaving a large shortfall of about US$115m which may be partially covered should the Ministry’s request for 2.8 billion birr (US$80m) from the state treasury be approved.

The poorest children should receive face masks for free and those who can afford should do so at discounted prices or their parents or caregivers helped to produce them at home. With only 37 per cent of schools currently having regular access to water, water supply and hand-washing stations should be installed, and classrooms and other spaces should be innovatively restructured to ensure physical distancing. Classrooms should be adequately ventilated. Ideally, each school should have a thermometer and a health worker. But this should not necessarily be a prerequisite for school reopening.

At a minimum, each school should be linked to a health facility for referrals, with a contact number to call if a child or a staff member displays COVID-19 symptoms, and clear guidance provided for how to respond in such circumstances. Times for entry and exit during the school day, and the length of lessons, may vary by region - but these should be designed to minimize crowding. In crowded settings, schools should develop a shift system and new teachers hired and trained. Psychosocial support for children and teachers will also be critical to ensuring quality of learning and identifying those in distress.

Other countries in Africa have successfully reopened their schools and these provide lessons from which Ethiopia can learn. For example, we know from countries like Malawi that mobilising the local community is an important first step, for example, in helping prepare teachers properly. We also know that clear and effective back-to-school advocacy is essential, so parents understand it is now safe for their children to return to the classrooms.

Schools should not immediately reopen fully. Instead they should do so in stages, giving priority to the most disadvantaged and marginalized, and those who need to take exams. Teachers in vulnerable groups, such as those over the age of 55 or with underlying health conditions, must be allowed to stay home. However, to encourage children to return, schools will need to provide catch-up classes and there may be a need to provide incentives such as stationery to mitigate the indirect costs and to help Ethiopia avoid a sudden reversal of years of gains in school enrollments.

Authorities in Ethiopia have taken important steps. All the regions have established structures or coordination bodies to facilitate the process of reopening. But there is still much that needs to be done. Most regions have not yet allocated funding for reopening preparedness (water provision, sanitizers, etc.) and some still have inadequate plans in place.

Before COVID-19, 2.6 million children in primary school age were already out of school, perhaps up to four million according to some estimates. This number could go up as a consequence of COVID-19. An out-of-school study that UNICEF plans to conduct with the Ministry of Education and other partners next year, and for which financing is being sought, will shed more light on the barriers preventing children from enrolling and staying in school. This study will be critical to formulating long-term, informed strategies for accelerating enrolment, improving quality, and bringing down the number of out-of-school children.

But of immediate concern is ensuring that COVID-19 does not compound this already difficult situation by adding to the numbers of out-of-school children. For this, UNICEF is seeking US$13.6 million to support the government’s schools reopening drive. We intend to support a multimedia back-to-school campaign, provide water and sanitation facilities in 2,000 schools, construct and rehabilitate classrooms in 30 schools for children from the refugee, internally displaced, and host communities, procure an additional 50,000 solar radios (20,000 have already been distributed), print 100,000 copies of communication booklets for teachers on COVID-19 prevention, and train 40,000 teachers to implement catch-up classes and accelerated learning. The funds will also be used to procure stationery for 200,000 children, invest in ICT and digital capacity in 370 schools, and train children and their families on how to make face masks at home.

But the investments required to make schools fit for learning in the COVID-19 era also offer an opportunity. Now is the time to renovate the physical infrastructure of schools, some of which have been neglected for many years - and specially to improve their WASH facilities. As other countries have done, it might also be an opportunity to develop a school health and hygiene programme linked to a referral system. And it remains important to ensure progress is made in strengthening distance learning opportunities, so that Ethiopia can have a more flexible, resilient and responsive education system in the future.


[1] COVID-19 School Closures May Further Widen the Inequality Gaps between the Advantaged and the Disadvantaged in Ethiopia: The need to (1) introducing evidence-based interventions to recover lost learning, (2) putting strategies in place to ensure children return to school when they reopen; (3) preparing teachers, students, and parents in advance of future crises were the key recommendations.