Omicron: Going to school and getting vaccinated
What our experts recommend
It’s a worrying time, once again, for families in South Asia.
With a new variant circulating (and a barrage of new information and guidance), it can be difficult knowing the best thing to do for your child.
We’ve gathered questions from parents across the region and asked our health and education experts for their recommendations. Here's what they said:
“Can children go to school when the virus is circulating?”
Yes. But with safety measures in place.
Children can safely attend school in person if sensible safety precautions are put in place. For example, physical distancing, access to soap and clean water, regular handwashing, ventilation of classrooms, sanitizing of surfaces and protective and screening equipment like masks and thermometers.
It’s also important that schools consider the level of COVID-19 transmission in the local area in their operational decisions. Nationwide school closures must be avoided whenever possible.
School closures have already cost children in South Asia too much. An estimated 434 million children have been impacted — and the results have been devastating.
Learning loss alone has been huge.
But school is more than just a building for learning. The services, experiences and relationships children benefit from in school are core to their wellbeing. And when classrooms close, they leave a void in children’s lives, which affects their physical and mental health.
We know the impact school closures have on children — and we know that mitigation measures help keep schools safe.
“Aren’t COVID-19 cases increasing rapidly? Wouldn’t it be safer for children to learn remotely?”
There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that schools are a main driver of community transmission.
But tragically, the evidence does show that remote learning has been no substitute for the classroom — especially for the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and youngest children.
Children learn better when they are in school. And school closures can even cause children’s learning to regress.
In Pakistan, surveys from 2021 in 4 districts of Punjab, revealed that over 75% of Grade 3 students were unable to read a simple sentence and 85% could not perform a simple division — a drop of over 20 percentage points from 2019.
In India, a study in Karnataka showed that the number of Grade 3 children who could read a Grade 1 text had dropped from 42% in 2018 to just 24% in 2020.
School closures are deepening South Asia’s already existing learning crisis. Children are falling further behind every day and are not getting the skills or knowledge they need to move forward in life.
What’s more, when children lose their schools, they also lose access to their friends, their support networks and often their medical services. Millions of them also lose their only nutritious meal of the day and their place of safety.
Fortunately, most cases of COVID-19 in children are mild. However, it’s essential that safety measures are still strictly adhered to in schools to stop any potential transmission.
For our experts it’s clear — the risks of being out of school are greater than the risks of being in school.
Children cannot face more tragedy. They need to be in school.
“Should my child return to pre-school?”
Yes. All children have been negatively impacted by school closures, but younger children are some of the hardest hit.
When very young children are out of pre-school or kindergarten, they are deprived of stimulation, emotional development and learning that prepares them for future life.
We know that children who fall behind during their early years stay behind for the rest of their time at school — and are more likely to drop out entirely.
The last two years have been difficult for young children. More than ever, they need their pre-schools and kindergartens.
“How can pre-schools open safely?”
Pre-schools can open safely by adapting facilities, lesson plans, curriculum, and teaching methods to include COVID-19 prevention measures and hygiene protocols.
They should also put procedures in place to monitor staff and children’s health and minimize the entry of non-essential staff into the building and prepare for if they need to close again.
Full guidance on reopening pre-schools safely can be found here.
Though there will be challenges, young children are highly resilient and adaptive. With clear and consistent instructions and a nurturing environment, they will be able to adjust and thrive in their new learning environment.
“Should my child wear a mask to pre-school?”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that in general, children age 5 and under should not be required to wear masks. This is based on their overall safety and best interests.
However, all staff members at pre-school should wear masks.
More guidance on children and mask use can be found here.
“Can my child get vaccinated against COVID-19?”
An increasing number of vaccines are now being approved for use in children, so it’s important to stay informed of guidance by your local and national health authorities.
Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, so unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers. Check with your local authorities to find out the timing of vaccinations for children where you live.
If your child has a vulnerability or health condition that puts them at a higher risk if infected by COVID-19, such as a heart, kidney or liver disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or cancer, speak to your health worker about getting them vaccinated sooner, as they are a member of a high-risk group.
It is also important to make sure that your child is continuing to receive routine childhood vaccinations. Read about how to do so safely here.
“Do children need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen?”
No. Safely reopening schools should not be dependent on every child being vaccinated against COVID-19.
There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that schools are a main driver of community transmission. With risk mitigation measures in place, schools can be safe environments for children.
School closures in South Asia have had a devastating impact on children’s learning and wellbeing – and children need to return to face-to-face learning as soon as possible.
All schools should reopen safely as soon as possible, without barriers, like compulsory vaccination, that could delay or prevent the most disadvantaged children from returning.
“Should my child go to school if they have symptoms of COVID-19?”
No. If your child has any common symptoms of COVID-19 seek medical attention to get them tested for the virus.
Most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms of the virus (or no symptoms at all) and can be treated at home with advice from a health worker.
Learn more about the symptoms of COVID-19 in children here.
“How can I support my child’s mental health during this stressful time?”
The pandemic has hit families' mental health hard. Every child and young person responds to stress and anxiety in different ways — and this is completely normal. As caregivers we need to respond to all emotions as valid emotions and respond to children with empathy.
These tips and resources will help you support your child’s mental health, however they’re coping:
- Find creative ways to help your children explore feelings such as anger, fear, sadness and loneliness.
- Sometimes engaging in a creative interactive activity, such as playing and drawing can facilitate this process.
- Listen to what they’re saying and take it seriously.
- Keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible. Children need routine and structure as much as they need free time and play.
- If children are witnessing violence at home, or if they are the target of the violence, it causes trauma and distress and may lead to disruptive behaviour.
- Explain to them that nobody should be stigmatized for having COVID-19.
- Avoid watching, reading, listening or discussing too much news about COVID-19 and persuade children to divert their attention to other topics as well.
- If someone is sick in the family, or if there has been a death, children may experience added anxiety and may need specialized help. Talk to professional counsellors for support and next steps.
Helplines for children in South Asia:
Sometimes children don't want to talk to their parents about how they’re feeling. This does not make you a bad parent.
Helplines for children are available across South Asia. Most helplines are open 24 hours a day and are free for children can call and talk to someone about how they’re feeling.
Resources for parents:
- Supporting your children return to school during COVID-19
- Four things you can do to support your teen’s mental health
- Tips to help you deal with COVID-19 parenting challenges
- Manual for parents: psychosocial support for children during COVID-19
- Emerging Minds: Communicating with your child about COVID-19
- Starting a conversation with your child
“What does UNICEF recommend to governments?”
We urge governments to do everything in their power to keep COVID-19 from further disrupting children’s education.
To avert a learning catastrophe and put children back on the learning track, UNICEF recommends the following:
- Keep schools open.
- Vaccinate teachers and school staff immediately.
- Do not make vaccination a pre-requisite for children to attend in-person schooling.
Making access to in-person schooling contingent on COVID-19 vaccination risks denying children access to education and increasing inequalities. Consistent with WHO recommendations, UNICEF recommends keeping schools open even without vaccinating children and adolescents.
In crisis conditions there are always difficult decisions that force difficult trade-offs, and we recognize the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating for school systems worldwide. But the stakes are too high. We must collectively do everything we can to keep children in school.
Read UNICEF’s latest recommendations to governments in full here.
“What resources are available to help schools reopen safely?”
Resources for schools, parents, teachers and policy makers in South Asia can be found on our dedicated resource hub here.
UNICEF and partners have also developed a framework for reopening schools safely, regardless of children being vaccinated, here.