Making Schools Safe in the State of Palestine Amidst Widening Pandemic
Since the start of the school year--early August in Gaza, and early September in the West Bank--more than 170 schools have temporarily closed following the health protocols
Preparing to get the State of Palestine’s 1.05 million children back into the classroom in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak was not an easy task. Since mid-July, the number of Palestinians infected with the deadly coronavirus has increased rapidly. UNICEF’s support last summer for the establishment of protocols and training in steps to prevent the spread of the virus and manage outbreaks has been critical to opening Palestinian schools and keeping them open.
Since the start of the school year--early August in Gaza, and early September in the West Bank--more than 170 schools have temporarily closed following the health protocols established alongside the Ministry of Health for confirmed COVID-19 cases among pupils or school staff. These steps have helped all of the State of Palestine’s 2,259 schools remain open, providing children with needed access to in-person education in an environment where poverty and stark inequality makes remote learning much more challenging.
Weeks of training and work to establish protocols for teachers, administrators and student volunteers set the stage fo a healthy return to school. The shutdown of public gatherings and many businesses in June, did not stop ministry staff from continuing to virtually train public schoolteachers and administrators, with UNICEF and its partners support.
By mid-September, 44,712 school staff members had been trained by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education. Staff members were trained in identifying and confirming when students or staff might be infected with COVID-19—and how to reintegrate them once the infection has passed. 2,826 students, members of 190 School Health Committees, were trained in October in COVID-19 prevention and the monitoring and support for the cleaning of schools and other school health initiatives. Masks, hand sanitizer and other hygiene supplies were also provided to the schools to help keep children safe.
Concerned that children would spread infection while interacting in school, the Ministry of Education developed a manual on “COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools Protocol.” This manual and the accompanying workshops, supported by UNICEF, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and Poland teach staff how to encourage their students to remain distanced, wear a mask, and maintain physical distance. Some schools have minimal infrastructure but have been able to use the training and follow the manual’s guidelines to protect each other's health.
As of 25 November, there were 74,053 individuals infected with COVID-19 in the occupied West Bank and 17,411 cases in the Gaza Strip. Nearly 13,786 of them were children under the age of 17. In the Gaza Strip, there are only 87 ICU beds to treat two million residents and the rising case counts have raised fears that the weakened health care system is in danger of collapse. In total, 767 people have already died from the virus in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
In a worrying turn, the week of 20-26 November saw a 66% increase in confirmed cases and a 57% increase in deaths, compared to the previous week. This spread in the community is being mirrored elsewhere as people move indoors for the cold winter months. Preventing and mitigating the spread of the virus in Palestinian schools using the tools that UNICEF and its partners have established will be critical in the coming months.