UNICEF calls on governments to accelerate a safe re-opening of schools for all children, with clear public health, hygiene and sanitation safeguards in place.
DAKAR/NEW YORK, 7 October 2020 – UNICEF calls on Ministries of Education and Finance today to prioritize education in their COVID-19 recovery plans to reduce the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children and national economies.
New data from UNICEF on progress and perspectives for the re-opening of schools in West and Central Africa shows that, six months from the onset of the pandemic, which forced all countries across West and Central Africa to close their schools in response to governments’ COVID-19 lockdown measures, only seven out of 24 countries in the region – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone – have been able to get their schools ready and reopen their school doors to welcome their children back to school for the new academic year 2020-2021.
UNICEF calls on the remaining 17 countries to accelerate their efforts to make schools physically ready for safe re-opening, including providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), making use of available physical spaces for a safer learning environment and using flexible blended learning approaches.
“COVID-19 has halted education for millions of children in West and Central Africa, a region that was already facing many challenges to provide quality education to every child, even in humanitarian contexts,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “We don’t have time to waste. With every day that goes by, millions of children and young people unable to safely access learning opportunities are missing out on their right to an education and putting their future at risk.”
Before the pandemic, education opportunities for children in West and Central Africa were unequally distributed, with around 41 million children and adolescents out of school – accounting for a third of the world’s out-of-school children. It is critical that all governments ensure that every child, especially the most excluded and marginalized children, including girls and children with disability, safely go back to school; and that countries build back better and reach out to children who were left out before the pandemic to include them in learning opportunities.
Opening the school doors to out-of-school children and adolescents by providing alternative accelerated learning pathways is needed to break the burden of inequalities in education and African economies. Maintaining a balance between digital learning and in-school learning will provide the flexibility and safety that children need during this transitional period. This is why it is essential that governments, more than ever before, ensure that the necessary resources, especially teachers, including volunteer teachers, are available for children to continue to learn while keeping safe.
In West and Central Africa, children go to school in some of the most challenging contexts in the world. In the midst of COVID-19, when washing hands with soap is one of the most effective barrier gestures against the pandemic, more than half of all children around the world who lack basic handwashing facilities at their schools are from sub-Saharan Africa. In Guinea-Bissau, only 12 per cent of schools have access to basic handwashing with soap and water, 15 per cent in Niger, 22 per cent in Senegal and 25 per cent in Burkina Faso. In addition, across the region, classes are often overcrowded and there is a lack of trained teachers to support children’s learning.
Despite efforts in most countries across the region to partially reopen their schools at the end of the academic year to allow students to complete their final examinations, millions of children were not able to physically return to school.
While schools were closed, several countries developed distance learning opportunities including through radio, television, internet, and paper-based materials. However, these efforts did not reach every child. At least 48 per cent of schoolchildren across the region were unable to access remote learning during school closures. This has widened inequities in access to learning opportunities. West and Central Africa is also home to several countries facing conflict, violence and other emergencies. By December 2019, schools for 2.1 million children were either closed or non-operational due to insecurity. These illustrate the need for governments to strengthen alternative pathways for quality education that reach all children and ensure continuity of learning.
School closures have negative consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing, with children, especially girls from the most marginalized communities, paying the heaviest price. Evidence – including examples from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone – shows that the longer children are out of school, the more likely they are to drop out of school altogether.
When children are out of school, they face a higher risk of recruitment by armed groups, child marriage, early pregnancy and other forms of exploitation and abuse. Since the pandemic began, violence against children has been on the rise. A recent survey in Burkina Faso found that 32 per cent of children in conflict-affected regions perceived an increase in domestic violence against girls and boys as a result of confinement at home.
UNICEF has been working alongside education authorities and communities to support school reopening by providing tools and training for teachers, improving access to water, hygiene and sanitation in schools, developing catch-up plans for students to regain learning lost and promoting innovations in school health, digital learning and foundational skills, in partnership with World Bank, UNESCO, WFP, WHO and the private sector.
UNICEF celebrates the first steps taken so far in reopening schools and calls on governments to:
Protect funding for education and fight the equity and learning crises by increasing or at least maintaining national commitments to public budgets for education.
Speed up back-to-school planning to prioritize creating safe and inclusive school environments, including for hard-to-reach children; children who were already out of school prior to the pandemic; children, especially girls, who may drop school due to gender-based barriers; and children living in remote areas and in poor households. improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene services in schools and in communities as a critical means of protecting public health in the context of COVID-19;
Develop strategic partnerships, including with bilateral and multi-lateral organisations, service providers and relevant private sector entities, to prioritize technologies in education, help bridge the digital divide, build foundational skills for children in resilient and agile education systems.
Use an integrated multi-sectoral approach to school reopening, expanding birth registration, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene services, and protection from violence, which are crucial to ensure quality education for all children.
“Now more than ever, governments must reaffirm their commitment to protect education financing and provide the resources needed to build inclusive and resilient education systems. Every school-age child and adolescent in West and Central Africa, including the most vulnerable and out-of-school girls and boys, should be able to access learning opportunities equitably and in safe, healthy, inclusive and protective learning environments,” said Poirier. “To mitigate the risks posed by COVID-19, UNICEF is fully mobilized to support governments to implement different ways of reopening schools while keeping children and communities safe. This includes reviewing spacing in classrooms or rotating students; increasing hand washing stations and introducing health checks; leveraging outdoor spaces for different school activities; or again, applying blended learning approaches.”
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