School closures implemented to protect students from COVID-19 are hurting them in other ways, two UN agencies have warned.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) say the long-term impact of this disruption to education could create a ‘lost generation’ in Africa.
Schools are a safe haven for many
Both bodies have now urged governments on the continent to promote a safe return to the classroom while also limiting spread of the virus.
“Schools have paved the way to success for many Africans. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
“We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation. Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools,” he added.
Only six countries are fully open
“This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents and with key measures like physical distancing put in place,” Moeti urged.
A WHO survey of 39 sub-Saharan African countries has revealed that schools are open in only six nations and partially open in 19.
Schools are closed in 14 nations, although 12 plan to resume classroom learning in September, the start of the academic year.
Closures cause exploitation and stress
The disruption to education has resulted in poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in the mental development of children, the organisations say.
Unicef said it found violence against children has increased in Eastern and Southern Africa. With 10-million children missing out on school meals, nutrition rates have decreased.
Girls are especially at high risk, particularly those who have been displaced or are from low-income households.
Noted Unicef Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall: “When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom.”
Lack of water and sanitation services
While also recommending other important measures, such as regular handwashing and daily cleaning of surfaces, a recent report by the two UN agencies found millions of children attend schools that lack water and sanitation services.
In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services while less than half have basic sanitation.
The COVID-19 pandemic thus provides an opportunity for investment and innovative thinking to address these shortages, according to the UN agencies.