UNICEF supports a healthier and safer school environment for children in the context of Covid
Mitigating disruptions to children’s learning throughout the Covid19 pandemic
“School had become, for me, a place of potential Covid-19 infection during this period. I was tired of all the danger. Even when I went home, when I walked in, my mom would ask me worriedly if I had touched anyone and if I was washing my hands. It scared me, it made me think of the potential sickness at school.”
In Bardo, a neighborhood in the Tunisian capital, villas and apartment buildings are squeezed haphazardly together along the Rue des Orangers (“Orange Tree Street”). In their midst, the Rue des Orangers Primary School sits on a corner, with kids’ laughter drifting out of the front gate. Inside the gate, a small garden gives way to a vast courtyard filled with children chatting, giggling, and jogging through the courtyard and up and down stairs to their classrooms, trying to beat the bell.
After the disruptions in schooling for children across Tunisia in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these students were able to make it smoothly back to school in the fall of 2020 thanks to the Ministry of Education efforts, with the support of UNICEF and its partners, who provided hygiene and disinfection kits and communication materials for preventing the spread of COVID-19, as well as hygiene best practices trainings – Support which has been ongoing ever since in order to ensure that children can learn in safer school environments.
In a brightly-lit room filled with books, a group of children sit around a globe of the earth. Mohammed Bou Ghanmi, 11, is one of them. He spoke about his classmates and teachers who had gotten sick with Covid-19 early in the pandemic.
“School had become, for me, a place of potential Covid-19 infection during this period. I was tired of all the danger. Even when I went home, when I walked in, my mom would ask me worriedly if I had touched anyone and if I was washing my hands. It scared me, it made me think of the potential sickness at school.” Meriam El Ouarhami, 11, sat next to Mohammed.
“Covid kept us stuck at home. It kept us away from a lot of things—we couldn’t go out to meet our friends. But I was happy when we finally got back [in person] to school because we could meet people, see our friends, get close to each other to talk about our lessons.”
The sanitary infrastructure was in bad condition at the Chott Zouhour primary school. But thanks to the support of UNICEF and partners, local entrepreneurs were hired to repair the facilities. Now the pupils can wash their hands and use clean, beautiful, and durable toilets.
A key part of the UNICEF Covid-19 response interventions in schools like this one in Bardo has been undertaking small-scale repairs of sanitary blocks (toilets) and hand washing facilities in 152 schools in 2021 and 172 schools in 2022 with USAID and German financial support. Proper sanitary facilities reduce the risk of transmitting diseases like Covid-19, and they keep students—particularly girls—protected and comfortable throughout their school day.
Oussama Guesmi, 31, a young Tunisian entrepreneur who was leading on the sanitary blocks’ rehabilitation works at Rue des Orangers Primary School, said the sanitary block at the school was in bad shape when he arrived. “The stall doors were broken, and so were the pipes.”
Guesmi said that for the sanitary blocks, his company changed the doors, put in new pipes, upgraded the sinks, upgraded the floor and wall covering, rewired the electricity system, and repainted it with bright and inviting colors.
But it’s not only the capital Tunis that is benefiting from such interventions. Nearly 70 kilometers to the southeast of Tunis, in the village of Chott Zouhour in Nabeul governorate, between verdant shorelines and low, rolling mountains, UNICEF and partners have also been hard at work getting kids back to school and boosting their hygiene and health circumstances.
Inside the classrooms of Chott Zouhour primary school, Rawaa El Agrebi, 11, said she suffered when the Covid-19 lockdown came to Chott Zouhour in 2020.
“For three months we sat at home and I started to feel lonely and isolated. When they said we would go back to in-person lessons, I was happy! But, not that happy, because we were studying on a different schedule, everyone had to stay away from each other, we couldn’t share tools or pencils.”
As in much of the world, in Tunisia, children's education was disrupted due to the pandemic. After months away from the classroom, UNICEF and its partners made it a priority for children to go back to school in the safest possible way.
“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Tunisia and all of the schools closed, I wanted so badly to get back to school, so I could see my friends. I wanted to joke, play with my friends, and study in person again.”
Mohammed Kacem Mhadhbi, 11, student at Chott Zouhour primary school Luckily, UNICEF and its partners were there to support the efforts of the Ministry of Education so children could be safe in school. In support of the 2020-2021 back to school, UNICEF distributed posters and flyers to schools about COVID-19 preventive measures. Between February and April 2021, institutional cleaning and disinfection kits were distributed to all 6,102 public schools in Tunisia, benefiting 2.1 million children. For the 2021 national end of year school exams UNICEF donated hundreds of thousands of washable facemasks and bottles of hand-gel.
From all of this awareness and material support, Mohammed said he learned all about how to keep safe from Covid-19. “Teachers taught us to wear a medical mask, wash our hands, use disinfectant gel, and practice physical distancing. These tips and advice helped us to protect ourselves, our friends, our families.”
And at the end, Mohammed said with a little smile, “We were able to take our final exams, and we passed.”
But the support didn’t stop there: to help children stay safe and healthy in the 2022-2023 school year, UNICEF, with the Tunisian Ministries of Health and Education, developed COVID-19 awareness materials with a focus on hand hygiene, including hundreds of thousands of flyers and posters distributed to all 6,103 schools. Also, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Health in training teachers on COVID-19 prevention and good hygiene practices.
In Tunis, Beate Richter, the director of KfW’s Tunis office, talked about what they are focusing on in Tunisia, and why they chose to cooperate with UNICEF to fight Covid-19 in schools.
“The pandemic showed that some WASH facilities were not adequate to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the school environment, as some had no soap or water. WASH in schools is critical to keep children safe and healthy and especially for girls during the menstrual period.”
Mary Linehan, the former Senior Health Advisor for USAID in Tunisia, said that USAID was already deeply involved in the COVID-19 response in Tunisia, but that the school sanitary intervention was raised by UNICEF as a potential area for collaboration.
To that end, she noted, USAID and UNICEF repaired WASH facilities in 281 schools, supported with institutional cleaning kits in 6,103 schools, made mass donations of masks and hand gel for final exams, as well as hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 awareness posters and a million flyers.
USAID and UNICEF’s efforts to support the Ministry of Education to keep kids COVID-19 and disease free so they can prosper in schools, keep society more broadly healthy, said Youmna Fakhfakh, health advisor for USAID Tunisia.
“Rehabilitating sanitary infrastructure in schools will reduce the spread of diseases inside and outside of schools.”
And this is critical, she believes, “because hygiene is critical to public health.”
Back in Chott Zouhour, Rawaa El Agrebi is smiling while sitting in one of the classrooms, because the Ministry of Education, with the support of UNICEF and its partners made it possible for her to get back to a place she loves—school.
“I was so glad when they opened schools again, and I got used to wearing the mask, regularly washing my hands, and using the gel. I was glad because I got to see my friends, and because with education you can realize your dreams, and do something big in your future.”