COPENHAGEN/GENEVA/PARIS, 2 July 2021 --Schools should remain open for as long as possible with adequate public health and social measures in place, and governments should use the summer months to implement measures that protect in-person schooling in the next school year, an international group of experts established by the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe said in its latest recommendations on schooling during COVID-19.
The updated recommendations come against the backdrop of rising infection rates in some countries in the Region, primarily due to the combination of the relaxation of public health and social measures, increased social mixing and vaccine inequity across the Region.
"The summer months offer a valuable window of opportunity for governments to put in place the right set of measures that will help keep infection rates down and avoid resorting to school closures, which, as we have seen, have such a harmful effect on the education, social and mental well-being of our children and youth," said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. "The spread of new variants, coupled with the presence of pockets of unvaccinated people in school settings, means that there is no time to lose. The time to act is now. We can't allow the pandemic to rob children of their education and development."
"Despite most countries offering remote learning, the learning loss and impact of not being in school have been challenging for children. This is particularly so for vulnerable and marginalized children. Over the past year, parents, caregivers and children have tried to adapt to their 'new' learning environment, but we can't risk having another year of disruptions," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. "We need to work together throughout the summer to ensure that children can go back to school safely and catch up with their learning."
"We must get out of the COVID-19-caused crisis in education and health with more resilient education and health care systems, and pursue ambitious goals to recover education and transform it so that every student learns better, has stronger social and emotional skills, better health and well-being," said Tao Zhan, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO-IITE). "We have to act now. The future of this generation is at stake."
The updated recommendations focus on eight key points affecting children and schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- The use of PCR or rapid diagnostic antigen tests in school settings;
- The need for studies that assess the effectiveness of risk-mitigation measures on infection control;
- The importance of safeguarding educational outcomes, mental and social well-being;
- The need to account for children living in vulnerable situations;
- Changes in the school environment that benefit child health and infection control;
- The importance of including children in all decision-making;
- Vaccination strategies in school settings; and
- Keeping schools open as the key overarching objective.
School closures should be considered only as a measure of last resort, if and when "large outbreaks occur or transmission in the community cannot be controlled by any other measures," the TAG members note in their recommendations.
Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling
Across the WHO European Region, the pandemic had a dire impact on schooling during the 2020-2021 academic year. UNESCO's monitoring of national distance learning solutions shows that 44 out of 53 countries in the WHO European Region closed their schools at the national level at the height of the pandemic in April 2020.
School closures have serious effects on the education, development and well-being of children and adolescents. In addition to depriving them of the necessary social interactions that support and promote their mental well-being, school closures led to remote learning arrangements that did not offer the same educational outcomes. In addition, even in the best settings, socially disadvantaged children and those in greater need of educational support have fallen behind, increasing social inequity between and within countries.
While most countries reopened their schools at the end of summer 2020, rising infection rates in the autumn and winter months led to more stringent measures across dozens of countries, including, in some areas, the closure of schools. However, research carried out in some Member States during the winter months of 2020 shows that SARC-CoV-2 incidence among students was lower than in the general population, with secondary infections in schools accounting for less than 1% of infections.
In the 2020 to 2021 academic year, we saw the largest disruption to education in history. With these recommendations, we now have the evidence and tools to ensure that children and young people can return to in-person schooling safely.
NOTE TO EDITORS
The recommendations were presented at a high-level ministerial event jointly organized by WHO's Regional Office for Europe, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They were issued by the Technical Advisory Group (TAG)---an independent group of experts established by the WHO Regional Director for Europe---and are based on the best available evidence and expert advice on safe schooling during the pandemic.
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