Op-ed: Getting kids safely back to school

COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future and the permanent closing of schools is not an option.

Katarina Johansson (UNICEF), Paul Gomis (UNESCO), Djamila Cabral (OMS), Emre Ozaltin (Banco Mundial)
Levar as crianças de volta à escola em segurança durante a COVID-19
17 July 2020

A controversial debate is raging in Mozambique: from the government to development partners; communities to teachers’ unions; and even within families. The difficult question everyone is grappling with is when it will be safe and appropriate for children to return to school.

Despite conflicting opinions on the question, there’s no mistaking the strong, almost visceral response shared by all: we must protect children and young people from the risk of harm brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19. The absolute priority is to safeguard learners’, teachers’ and other school employees’ lives and well-being.

In the face of this unprecedented public health crisis, families, communities and governments are averse to making any call that might bring harm to children and endanger their families. 

At the same time, we must be cognizant that there is substantial harm being done to children by not being in school and that there is a need to sensibly balance these risks.

The closing of schools in Mozambique on 23rd of March, affected more than 8.5 million students in almost 15,000 schools, including pre-school to university level. The cost of continued full shutdown is high: violence rates against children are up, nutrition rates are down because children miss school meals, and COVID-19 could increase the number of out-of-school children in the country. We know from previous emergencies that more girls get pregnant during school closures, and after extended breaks from school, many children simply never return.

The Ministry for Education and Human Development (MINEDH) and partners acted quickly to ensure the right to education by initiating support for children and youth to study at home through online platforms, distribution of special learning materials for homework and offering lessons on local radio and TV. Despite immense efforts, these measures have not reached many children in Mozambique because they lack access to these media.

Great efforts have been made to allow economic life to continue safely in Mozambique, built around a consensus that both the formal and informal economies cannot afford to be completely shut down. People must be able to earn a living. In supermarkets and shopping malls there have been quick adaptions to ensure increased hygiene and distancing. Street markets are currently also being redesigned to improve these standards.

COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future and the permanent closing of schools is not an option.  

But here is a way forward: MINEDH, together with UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, the World Bank and other partners have prepared a plan to safe school reopening, which will ensure learning environments meet the minimum standards of safety and sanitation and minimize the risks of exposure for children on their way to and from school. Specific public health measures must be taken based on risk analysis before schools reopen, including having numerous hand washing stations, temperature checks, innovative restructuring to ensure physical distancing, enforcing the wearing of masks, adequate ventilation of the classrooms and risk communication. With a possible peak of COVID-19 cases in Mozambique in December 2020 or January 2021, the timing, location, and phasing of this reopening must be very carefully considered with a deliberate weighing of risks.

15 Million USD support from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and other support from partners have already been important steps to respond to COVID-19, but much more funding will still be needed. We call on all development partners, to take the opportunity to support the Government of Mozambique in its efforts to ramp up school water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as security investments, not only to make the eventual reopening of schools safer but also to make schools more resilient to future emergencies.

Make no mistake, when the schools reopen, there will be a risk of infections in some schools even with these measures, and schools and authorities need to monitor this very closely to be able to act quickly and potentially close some schools again. However, assuming COVID-19 will not disappear anytime soon and balancing the harm being done to children locked out of schools, it shall eventually lead children back into the classroom.