The reopening of schools is good news for children, parents and the rest of Fiji

Joint op-ed by Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Pacific Representative, and Dr. Mark Jacobs, WHO Representative to the South Pacific

UNICEF, WHO
From left: Niumai Mavida, Koroni Tuivaga and Emele Batikalou at Nasinu Secondary School.
UNICEFPacific/2021/Sharma
13 December 2021

SUVA, FIJI, 13 December 2021

School is an important time for children’s learning and development and, even during the pandemic, it is possible to attend school safely. We therefore welcome today’s announcement by the Hon. Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts, Ms. Premila Devi Kumar, that all children will return to in-person learning, with Year 8 to 11 to resume on 4 January and Early Childhood Education to Year 7 to begin from 10 January, a decision that has been rightly applauded and welcomed by teachers, parents and children alike.

Here are the reasons why.

Around the country, there are more than 200,000 school children who have lost an estimated 1,050 hours each – and counting – of in-person learning since April, leading to these children being cut off from their education and the other vital benefits schools provide. While we acknowledge the massive efforts made in Fiji to provide school children with access to remote learning this year, the shift to remote learning globally has been associated with a learning loss. The importance of the teacher has never been so clear.

The good news is that children returning to school is not dependent on the availability of vaccines for children. The latest global guidance from UNICEF and WHO includes advice on safety measures, which can be adapted to the local context, showing that it is possible to make a safe return to school here in Fiji. We are reassured that the government is ensuring safety measures are adapted in schools across the country to provide all students with a safe and healthy learning environment.

In addition, the latest evidence shows that schools do not drive the spread of COVID-19 in the community. COVID-19 does not pose as high a risk to children as it does to adults, and children are more at risk of COVID in the community than they are in school, so long as COVID-safe measures are followed in schools. In short, children can be safe in school, and primary schools, preschools and early childhood education centres are not high-risk settings for transmission, especially if the right safety measures are followed. So, even when COVID-19 case numbers rise once more, schools can be safe havens and protecting in-person learning must be a priority.

There are also many other benefits for all children when they are in school. The majority of school children rely on their schools as a place where they not only gain important academic skills, but also critical social, emotional and life skills when they interact with their peers, receive psychosocial and child protection support, and access health, protection and immunization services. For some children, school is the one place where they can feel safe and protected, have positive experiences with their teachers and classmates, and develop to their full potential.

And, just as with the opening of the borders for tourists, education is also essential for the economic recovery of this country. Investing in education creates jobs, boosts economic growth and increases social cohesion. Sending children to school also allows parents to work and support their families during these difficult times.

The recent reduction in COVID-19 cases has been possible thanks to the cooperation of all Fijians in limiting the spread of the virus. And now it is vital that a similar whole-of-society approach is taken to support children in returning to school.  Everyone has a role to play. Parents must ensure that their children return to school in January and, together with teachers, ensure that their children practise COVID-safe hygiene measures, including wearing masks, washing hands regularly for at least 20 seconds and keeping at least one metre apart. It is also important that children do not go to school when they are sick. Children are nothing if not adaptable and resilient and around the world they have demonstrated that they can and will adopt the safe behaviours that allow them to return to school.

As the government has confirmed, it’s time for children across the country to pack their school bags and get excited, the school gates will reopen in January. On behalf of UNICEF and WHO, we commend the people and Government of Fiji for all the hard work that has made this announcement possible.