The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has decried the continued closure of schools in “too many countries” on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement on Tuesday, January 12, the agency said this was in spite of increasing evidence that schools were not drivers of the pandemic.
UNICEF also pointed out “overwhelming evidence” of the impact of school closures on children.
It warned that the number of out-of-school children was set to rise by 24 million “to a level we have not yet seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome”.
It noted the “devastating cost of school closures, which it said affected 90 per cent of students worldwide and denied a third of school children access to remote education.
“Children’s ability to read, write, and do basic mathematics has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st-century economy have diminished.
“Their health, development, safety, and well-being are at risk. The most vulnerable among them will bear the heaviest brunt.
“Without school meals, children are left hungry and their nutrition is worsening.
“Without daily interactions with their peers and a reduction in mobility; they are losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress,” the agency noted.
The agency added that schoolchildren were more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage, and child labour in the absence of the safety that schools often provided.
This, UNICEF emphasised, is why shuttering schools must be a last resort after all other options have been exhausted.
“Assessing the risk of transmission at the local level should be a key determinant in decisions on school operations.
“Nationwide school closures must be avoided whenever possible.
“Where there are high levels of community transmission; where health systems are under extreme pressure; and where closing schools is deemed inevitable; safeguarding measures must be put in place.
“This includes ensuring that children who are at risk of violence in their homes; who are reliant upon school meals; and whose parents are essential workers are able to continue their education in their classrooms.
“In the case of lockdowns, schools must be among the first to reopen once authorities start lifting restrictions.
“Catch-up classes should be prioritised to ensure that children who have been unable to learn remotely are not left behind.
“If children are faced with another year of school closures; the effects will be felt for generations to come,” UNICEF said.