Schools reopening restores normalcy to children amid lingering COVID-19 risks

COVID-19 has caused the largest disruption of education in history, disrupting the learning of 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries globally. In Ethiopia, 26 million schoolchildren were affected when schools closed in March 2020

Demissew Bizuwork and Zerihun Sewunet
Sumaya Mahdi
04 December 2020

Ararso, Somali region 28 October 2020 - “When our school closed, we didn’t know what to do,” says Sumaya Mahdi, an 8th grader at Sheik Nuh Primary School in Ararso town, Somali region, Ethiopia. “However, I did my best to continue my education through distance learning.”

Since the end of October, schools have been reopening in the Somali region after nearly eight months of closure due to COVID-19. Sumaya and her best friend Najma Ibrahim are happy to be back in school. “Although the coronavirus is still a risk, we are glad that we can continue learning,” she says. 

Once again, the Sheik Nuh School compound has burst into life. Before they head to class, the students, each wearing a mask, wash their hands with soap at a newly installed handwashing station which operates with a foot pedal. There is a mood of celebration and relief at coming back to school but wearing masks and maintaining physical distance is yet proving to be a challenge for many of the students. 

According to the COVID-19 guidelines on schools reopening, classrooms are to be occupied only by a third of their previous capacity and students and teachers are required to wear masks inside the school. Teacher Ferhan Aden explains the situation before and after COVID-19. “Before COVID, 2 to 3 students would share a desk, but now it is one desk for one student. This is a big difference. In addition, students must wash their hands when entering the school compound and frequently during break time.” 

A three-shift schedule is also in place to minimize the number of students. Students in grades 6 to 8 are the first to come in the early morning, followed by students in grades 4 to 6 in the second shift and lastly students in grades 1 to 4 in the final shift. The shifts rotate every week and the maximum number of students in one class is limited to 25. As a result, teachers have to cover more classes.  

COVID-19 has caused the largest disruption of education in history, disrupting the learning of 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries globally. In Ethiopia, 26 million schoolchildren were affected when schools closed in March 2020.

UNICEF has worked with the Ministry of Education and other partners to ensure that children are back in school and kept safe from COVID-19. UNICEF supported the development of guidelines on safe re-opening of schools and helped to produce a teachers’ guide on COVID-19 which outlines safety measures, wellbeing and psychosocial support to students. In addition, UNICEF continues to provide soap, hand sanitizers, handwashing stations, school bags and recreation kits to schools.

In every school, a COVID taskforce comprising the local administration, health and education officials and school management closely monitors adherence to prevention. The taskforce also ensures that students have access to supplies like soap and hand sanitizers.  

At Sheik Nuh School, the task force meets regularly and reviews the measures in accordance with the guidelines, says the school’s director Hussein Ali. “We also address any challenges that arise.” 

The preventive measures and their strict adherence have helped convince parents that it is safe for their children to return to school. The parents are happy to send their children to school because many are unable to help their children with homeschooling as they themselves are not educated. Besides, the lack of technological infrastructure in some areas to support remote learning meant some students could not access distance education during the closure.  

Encouragingly, latest data from the Ministry of Education shows that of the 36,577 primary schools in rural areas in Ethiopia that were scheduled to reopen in October, 33,672 (92 per cent) have since reopened. Enrolment, however, is not fairing nearly as well and is a source of great concern. Before OVID-19, 18.6 million students were enrolled in rural primary schools in Ethiopia; when schools reopened, only 16.4 million (88 per cent) have re-enrolled. The situation is even more worrying at pre-primary and secondary levels were enrolments are at 75 per cent and 66 per cent respectively.

The long school closure put children from low-income families at risk of not continuing their education. But for Sumaya and Najma, coming back to school has strengthened their resolve to work hard this year to pass the grade 8 national exam and proceed to high school. Both girls aspire to enter university one day.