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Weighing up the risks: School closure and reopening under COVID-19 — when, why, and what impacts? [EN/AR/PT]

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Summary

  • In an effort to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, governments around the world have closed schools.
  • School closures are negatively impacting the well-being of children and young people and, in some contexts, might not be effectively reducing transmission.
  • The INEE and the Alliance call on policymakers to:
    • Consider the impacts of school closures on the education and protection outcomes of children and youth;
    • Balance these impacts with a considered review of the health impacts; and
    • Make informed, child-centered decisions on when and why to reopen schools.

1. THE CHALLENGE

“Staying at home is not exactly hard, per se, but the whole lockdown itself is stressful and we don’t know what to do with ourselves.”
(Conclusion of a group of thirteen 10- to 19-year-olds in India)

The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected millions of children and youth in almost every country in the world. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 90 percent of students were affected by the closure of schools, universities, and other institutions (UNESCO, April 2020). While school closures may have been necessary to reduce the transmission rate of COVID-19 in many contexts, the full impact of such closures on the well-being of children and youth has not always been considered in the decision-making process. Various risks to the education, protection, and health of children and youth need to be analyzed to decide whether schools reopen or stay closed. Such data analysis, particularly at a local level, is necessary to make informed decisions on when and why to reopen schools (UNICEF).

Many papers, documents, and resources have highlighted how COVID-19 has impacted access to quality education and learning due to widespread school closures (INEE Resource Collection, GEC, UNESCO, 2020). This evidence suggests that the COVID-19 crisis jeopardizes the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) and leaves the most marginalized children and youth—especially those in vulnerable situations—even further behind their less vulnerable peers. Before the COVID-19 crisis, 258 million children were already denied their right to quality education; millions more are now at risk of having this right disrupted and denied (UNESCO, 2019). This pandemic has also increased protection risks, including those related to various forms of violence, abuse, and exploitation, thereby putting the achievement of SDGs 5.2, 5.3, 8.7 and 16.2 further from reach.

With some countries now over the first peak of the pandemic, governments are considering whether to reopen schools and, if so, how. It is evident that access to safe, quality education is a protective factor against the violations of children’s rights as defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet, as of June 2020, full and partial school closures remain in place for over 60 percent of students worldwide (UNESCO, 2020). In almost all countries affected by COVID-19, the decision to close schools—and to keep them closed— has been based solely on public health considerations.

Decision-making around when and why to reopen schools needs to be more balanced. This includes assessing the negative consequences that closing schools or keeping them closed may have on the overall well-being of children and youth. As Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, suggested recently in an opinion piece for CNN, “One thing is clear: It is critical to balance the overwhelmingly damaging effects of school closures with the need to control the spread of Covid-19.”

This policy paper is aimed primarily at decision-makers (ministries of education, social welfare, and health and their associated partners) and reviews the impacts of school closures on children and youth’s holistic well-being, specifically in terms of education, protection, and health. It proposes that the decision-making process regarding school closure/ reopening review a variety of risks, not just health risks. To that end, this paper asks the following fundamental questions:

a. Are children and youth able to learn effectively when out of school?
b. Are children and youth better protected in or out of school?
c. Are most children and youth safer health-wise in or out of school?

This paper’s approach is based on the principles of ‘do no harm’ and the ‘best interests of the child’ (UNCRC, Article 3, 1989), which have been further defined in the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action and the INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery. A continuum of decision-making in regard to school reopening is presented in Section 2 and highlights this paper’s position in relation to available guidance on how schools might safely reopen.

The diagram and considerations provided in Section 2 and the sample questions provided in Section 3 are designed to support a localized and holistic process of discussion and decision-making on when and why to reopen schools or to close them/keep them closed. These need to be adapted and added to according to the national and/or local context.

The sample decision-making tool outlined in Section 4 is only one approach that may assist in reaching a locally based, contextualized decision. The process is a complex one that should carefully consider issues related to education, child protection, and health to assess the risks of re-opening schools or keeping them closed.

If and when a decision is made to reopen schools, relevant guidance on how to safely reopen schools should be followed.