How UNICEF Sudan is supporting children and families affected by school closures

UNICEF Sudan helps minimize effects of school closures on children and families

UNICEF Sudan
Children in classroom
Shehzad Noorani
14 July 2020

Over 8.1 million students across Sudan have been hit hard with the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, there are 3.6 million children already out of school. Although the closure of schools coincided mostly with the regular school closure period, it was not possible in most states to complete the Grade 8 and Grade 11 school exams due to increased health and safety concerns.

State Ministries of Education are hoping to finalize the exams before September 2020.

Wail Shuaib Mohammed, Education specialist from UNICEF Sudan, talks about the effects school closures have had on children and their families. Wail also sheds light on what the Government of Sudan and UNICEF are doing to support.

 

What is the situation with school closures in Sudan?

Countries are at varying stages in their education response to COVID-19. Many governments have announced their plans on school openings, while others have already started opening classrooms. In the last two weeks we’ve seen millions of students return to school. However, more than 1 billion school children in more than 130 countries remain affected by closures.

During the Sudan revolution in 2018 - 2019, children in Sudan experienced long school closures. Then again, on 15th of March 2020, authorities closed schools and universities as a safety measure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has affected 8.1 million students across Sudan.

Moreover, 3.6 million children (5-13 years old) are out of school across the country. The closure of the schools due to the pandemic coincided mostly with the regular school closure period.  However, it was not possible in most states to complete the Grade 8 and Grade 11 school exams due to increased COVID 19 concerns.

If the COVID 19 situation improves, the state Ministries of Education are hoping to conduct the exams before September 2020.

As for the opening of the schools, a new calendar has been decided by the Federal Ministry of Education for all schools to start on 6th of September 2020.

 

What is the government of Sudan doing to manage the effects of schools closing and ensure children continue to learn?

UNICEF is highlighting the urgent need to encourage innovative ways to ensure ongoing learning in emergencies and for 2020-2021, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes Preparedness, Response and Recovery.

We are supporting the Federal and State Ministries of Education in Sudan with continuation of education by collaborating with national TV and Radio, specific website platforms and paper-based materials to reach all students.

This includes immediate reviews for Grade 8 and Grade 11 students, the development of materials for grades 1-7 to keep them engaged in active learning and leading efforts for learning online beyond September, if schools are not able to reopen by then.

We know it can be hard for parents too who are trying their best. That is why we have great resources for children and families. The role of teachers is now also more important than it already was.

Ways of supporting your community include sharing accurate information and awareness on COVID-19 risks and important habits such as physical distancing and frequent handwashing.  We continue to do everything we can to support the Transitional Government to help keep students learning – at home, online, offline – wherever they are.

 

Is there any evidence to suggest disease transmission is linked to schools?

Strict measures were taken to help contain the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve. Often, schools were among the first places to close, sometimes even before shopping malls, markets and restaurants. We know more now than we did before. Reports suggest children and schools are not the main drivers of the epidemic across countries.

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. Therefore, what we are calling for is that schools be among the first services to open when the safety measures are put into place.

 

girls in classroom
Shehzad Noorani

What negative impacts are you seeing in children whose schools remain closed?

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 labour and less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty. For the most marginalized, missing out on school - even if only for a couple of weeks - can lead to negative outcomes that may last a lifetime. Children who lack access to education might also have a lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes.

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. During the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak, for example, pregnancy rates among teenagers in Sierra Leone doubled and many girls were unable to continue their education when schools reopened.

Millions of children, particularly those living in rural areas, from poorer families or with special needs, rely on schools as a lifeline to meals, support in times of distress, health screenings and therapeutic services. When schools close, their lifeline to these services is taken away.

Even prior to the pandemic, we were in the middle of a learning crisis, with less than half of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries able to understand a simple written sentence. In Sudan, literacy rates also remain low, particularly among young women: overall, some 45.2% of girls and women aged 15-24 are illiterate. Less than half of grade 3 students who can read comprehend what they read. In numeracy, less than half (46 per cent) of the children can correctly solve level one addition and only 40 per cent can solve level one subtraction.  

Prolonged school closures are likely to cause students to regress academically, especially as online learning is only accessible to a few. In the majority of countries across Africa, for example, less than a quarter of the population have internet access. Low tech options such as radio and television classes and printed handouts have allowed millions of students to keep – and at times start – learning, but nothing can replace many of the benefits that can come from face-to-face interaction with teachers or peers.

 

Isn’t it impossible to give advice that can be applied in every country, and every local community?

We recognize that the pandemic is impacting countries and local communities differently and the global situation is evolving rapidly.

Decisions on when to open schools must be made in the best interests of children. Countries must look at the impact on children through public health, socio-economic and protection lenses. We know that the longer children stay out of school, the more exposed they are to dangers. This is especially true for children who are already vulnerable.

 

How can schools reopen safely?

We have released guidance to help governments re-open schools safely. Some of our recommendations include:

  • Implementing physical distancing measures, including prohibiting activities that require large gatherings;
  • Staggering the start and close of the school day;
  • Staggering school mealtimes;
  • Moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors;
  • Lessons provided in shifts, to reduce class size.

 

When can we expect schools in Sudan to reopen??

It is impossible to say when all schools will reopen. Countries are facing different contexts, and many are in different stages of the virus. In countries where schools have started to reopen, many have put in place a phased approach.

Eventually all schools will reopen so this is an opportunity to take actions to both make schools safer now and more resilient to future crises.

Boys washing their hands
Shehzad Noorani

What about schools that do not have handwashing facilities? Should they reopen?

Our most recent guidelines on the reopening of schools make it clear that water and hygiene facilities are critical to the safe reopening of schools.

Before the pandemic hit, 1 in 3 schools did not have water access, and nearly half of schools worldwide did not have handwashing stations with soap. These basic services, along with cleaning and disinfection of all common areas and potentially contaminated surfaces, are crucial measures to reduce transmission.

Cleaning supplies and increased number of toilets or latrines are also an important step to take before reopening schools.

In some countries we are trucking water and working with communities to bring water to schools to ensure we can meet handwashing and hygiene requirements. We learned a great deal on how to rapidly improve hygiene in schools during the Ebola crisis.

 

What  type of support is UNICEF Sudan providing?

Our efforts, in addition to the already continued support in place, includes working with the Federal and state ministries of education to specifically develop minimum standards for safe operation of schools by the time proposed for reopening in September 2020. This includes learning shifts, redistribution of teachers between urban and rural schools, provision of WASH facility in each school.

 

What about the children who will never return to school after this crisis? And those who were already out of school before COVID-19?

The most vulnerable school children will be the hardest hit by school closures. And the most vulnerable out-of-school children will be the hardest hit by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The longer school children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. As schools reopen, we need to focus on how to get the most marginalized into the classroom so that they can resume, or in some cases, start their education. We cannot simply return to business-as-usual.

We must ensure that when schools reopen, every child is included and learns; every child has access to school-based health, hygiene and nutrition services; and every child is connected to the internet.

This global disruption can be a catalyst for a once-in-a-lifetime transformation in our schools, so that every child learns the skills they need to succeed in life, school and work.

 

Does this mean that UNICEF disagrees with countries which have decided to keep schools closed?

The decision of when to reopen schools should be made in the best interest of children and overall public health considerations. The decision must be based on an assessment of the associated benefits and risks and informed by cross-sectoral and context-specific evidence, including education, public health and socio-economic factors. But one thing is clear: As countries begin to ease lockdowns, they need to prioritize the reopening of their schools.

When children cannot go to school, they often end up losing more than their education. For many students – for whom school offers a lifeline – when the classrooms close, they lose their routine, time with their friends, their only meal of the day, their access to health and nutrition services and the safety that school provides for them.

In the past few months, call centres and shelters have reported an increase in domestic violence. There has been a rise in children being abused and exploited online. Children and young people’s mental health suffers as they feel the weight of a stressful home life, poverty, isolation, fear of their family members getting ill, and how they are going to continue their studies at home.

Parents – many of whom have lost their jobs or are trying to work from home – are now left with the responsibility of providing their children with the tools, technology and support needed to continue their studies.

 

What about evidence that children, while less susceptible to the disease, can serve as a vector of the disease to other members of their households and communities? Won’t opening schools help spread the virus?

We know that children and schools are not the main drivers of the pandemic 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.

And while there is limited evidence on the impact of school openings on transmission, there is overwhelming evidence on the negative impact of school closures on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning. Therefore, what we are calling for is that schools be among the first services to open when the safety measures are put into place.

 

Was it wrong to close schools in the first place?

When the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the world, strict measures were taken to help contain the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve. Often, schools were among the first places to close, sometimes even before shopping malls, markets and restaurants. There was a lot the world did not know about its impact on children. Can they get sick? Can they transmit the virus? Are schools safe?

We have learned quite a bit since then. We have learned that children and schools are not the main drivers of the epidemic across countries. We have also learned that there is no known evidence on the correlation between the rate of disease transmission and whether or not schools remain open or closed.

 

What if infections increase once schools reopen?

The decision of when to reopen schools should be made in the best interest of children and overall public health considerations. The decision must be based on an assessment of the associated benefits and risks and informed by cross-sectoral and context-specific evidence, including education, public health and socio-economic factors.

School operations will need to align with public health measures, and adjustments will need to be made when there is new information on risks or changes in local transmission and conditions.