The steady trickle of headline numbers that get served up to capture the situation vis-a-vis COVID-19 in countries around the world has the potential to distract us from a number of other problems, simply because they cannot be measured. Principal among these, in my considered opinion, is the continued impact of school closures, that in Bangladesh has now been prevalent for 16 months straight. It’s a theme I return to frequently, precisely because the impact of the pandemic on one of humanity’s greatest privileges – the gift of education – has proven so difficult to capture. To my mind only the full reopening of schools for children of all ages will signal the end of the pandemic.
As of today, primary and secondary schools remain shuttered in 19 countries, affecting over 156 million students. The great fear is that the losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped. Two of the UN’s most important organs, UNICEF and UNESCO, have listed learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, as some of the most important consequences that children of school-going age are having to bear. That is before we even get to the impacts on academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health.
Naturally, it is the children in low-resource settings – Bangladesh fits squarely within this description - who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages, who will be most affected. In a joint statement this week, Unicef and Unesco have urged governments to work relentlessly towards reopening schools, building on the foundation of children’s immune systems being clearly better-suited to handling a bout with the virus, including all the variants of concern that have been identified till date.
The joint statement is probably the most resounding endorsement we have seen since the start of the pandemic in favour of reopening schools for in-person learning. Citing “clear evidence” that primary and secondary schools are not among the main drivers of transmission of the virus, the statement also reminds us that the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools is manageable with appropriate mitigation strategies in most settings. The two organisations’ various field offices spread around the globe can no doubt offer local governance and school bodies some help and technical expertise in devising appropriate strategies geared towards getting the kids back in school.
Reopening schools cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated. With the global vaccine shortages plaguing low and middle-income countries, vaccinating frontline workers and those most at risk of severe illness and death will remain a priority. All schools should provide in-person learning as soon as possible, without barriers to access, including not mandating vaccination prior to school entry.