Time has come to reopen schools in South Sudan

An editorial, by Dr Mohamed Ag Ayoya, the UNICEF Representative in South Sudan, and Mr. Julius Banda, the UNESCO Representative in South Sudan.

21 July 2020
A boy writing in a book
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

As the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, the re-opening of schools is a difficult topic to consider. Yet, it is critical to balance the overwhelmingly damaging effects of school closures on children with the need to control the spread of COVID-19. Yes, children are at risk of infection, and yes, that is terrifying for parents. However, the vast majority of children, if infected, display mild symptoms and recover well. And the risks for them of keeping schools closed outweigh the health risks caused by the pandemic.

When schools in South Sudan shut down in mid-March 2020, forcing 2 million children out of school, we knew very little about Covid-19 and its impact on children.

We now know more about children and COVID-19 than we did before. We know that children are the least directly affected by Covid-19, are less prone to fall ill from it and are much less likely to spread the disease.

Despite conflicting opinions on the question, there’s no mistaking the strong, almost visceral response shared by all: there is a need to protect the young from the risk of harm brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of this unprecedented public health crisis, it is true that families, communities and governments are averse to making any call that might bring harm to children. 

And yet increasingly, evidence points to harm being done to children by not being in school.

We are seeing most sectors gradually reopen, except the education sector. This has been due to a growing consensus that both the formal and informal economies cannot afford to remain shut down indefinitely. People must be able to earn a living. Business is resuming.

It is against this background that we encourage the authorities of South Sudan, as well as communities, parents, and teachers to employ the same agility and urgency to safely reopen schools. The long-term impact of extending the school lockdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities. Sadly, on these fronts, the evidence is overwhelming.

Our knowledge is improving daily to ensure safety in reopening schools. There is increasing evidence that children and schools are not the main drivers of the epidemic across countries. In fact, there is no known evidence on the correlation between the rate of disease transmission and whether or not schools remain open or closed.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence on the negative impact of school closures on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning. When children are out of school for prolonged periods of time, their exposure to physical, emotional and sexual violence increases. Their mental health deteriorates. They are more vulnerable to child labor and less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.

For girls, especially those who are displaced or living in poor households, the risks are even higher. When girls remain out of school they are at higher risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, including child marriage.

Also, thousands of children, particularly those living in rural areas, from poorer families or with special needs, rely on schools as a lifeline to meals. When schools close, their lifeline to these services is taken away.

Prolonged school closures are likely to cause students to regress academically. Online learning is only for the privileged few. Radio classes allowed thousands of children in South Sudan to keep learning, but many more have no access to distant learning. Also, nothing can replace face-to-face interaction with teachers or peers.

And evidence has proven that the longer schoolchildren are out of school, the less likely they are to return. Hence, the urgency to consider the reopening of schools in South Sudan. Everything must be done to avoid that the number of out-of-school children increases further. With 2.2 million children not in school, South Sudan has one of the largest out-of-school figures worldwide.

We applaud for the plan of the Ministry of General Education and Instruction to gradually reopen schools in the coming weeks and encourage the National COVID-19 Taskforce to support the plan. We appeal to the communities and the families to have confidence and send their children back to school once it has re-opened. We are calling on to the teachers to welcome their pupils back in their classes. And to the children, who have advocated for a return to school so that they can resume with their education and meet their teachers and peers again, we say that their message was heard; they also have a role to play to keep their schools safe.

UNICEF and UNESCO will work with the Ministry of General Education and Instruction to ensure that the return of the children of South Sudan to school can happen in the best circumstances, reducing as much as possible the risk of infections and ensuring that children no longer lose time. Because education cannot wait. (END)   

Media contacts

Yves Willemot
Chief of Communication
UNICEF South Sudan
Tel: +211 91 216 2888

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work in South Sudan visit: www.unicef.org/southsudan

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