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It is time to reopen schools

When the coronavirus spread like wildfire across the planet, the world did not yet know much about the effects of the disease on children. Can children get sick? Can they transmit the virus? How Safe Are Schools?


We have learned a lot since then. We have learned that children are not a major factor in the spread of the virus.


At the same time, we know that not attending school can have a devastating effect on children from mental and physical health disorders to, in some cases, malnutrition. It is now clear that the situation of children, like the world at large, will improve if schools are reopened.


We must first ask why many schools around the world remain closed.


Strict measures have been taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus and to reduce the growth curve. In many cases, schools were the first to be closed, sometimes closing even earlier than malls and restaurants. As of April, a nationwide lockdown in 194 countries left 1.6 billion children out of school, accounting for about 90% of all students worldwide. Today, two months after many countries began to ease lockdowns for non-life support services, more than 1 billion children in 144 countries are still out of school. The reason for these children staying at home is not the summer holidays, they are students whose education has been interrupted.


Decades of experience and research show that when children drop out of school, they are more likely to be physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Their mental health may deteriorate. They become more vulnerable to child labor exploitation, and they become less likely to overcome the cycle of poverty. In the case of the most extreme, skipping classes, even for a few weeks, can lead to life-long consequences.


For girls, especially those living in displaced or poor households, the risks are even higher. When girls drop out of school, the risk of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse increases.


During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, for example, the teen pregnancy rate in Sierra Leone doubled, and many girls were unable to continue their education after school reopened.


And we cannot forget the millions of children, especially in rural areas, those living in insecure families, those with special needs, for whom the school serves as a major source of food, support for stress, and health care.


Even before the epidemic, the world was already in an educational crisis. According to the World Bank, in low- and middle-income countries, less than half of 10-year-olds could read and understand primitive stories after graduating from elementary school. Closing schools can lead to a drop in student achievement, as, let’s face it, online education is available to only a handful of beneficiaries. In most sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the Internet is available to less than a quarter of the population.


Primitive technology, such as radio, television, and print, has allowed millions of students to continue, sometimes even start, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact with teachers and peers.


As more and more countries are going to ease the lockdown conditions, those countries should make schools a priority in their reopening programs. And for the sake of the children, but also for the sake of the economy.


How will parents return to work if there is no safe place to leave their children? In most countries, women make up more than 60% of health care workers. Do they not need to help care for their children while they are busy saving lives?


One thing is clear. It is extremely important to balance the extremely harmful phenomenon of school closures with the need to control the spread of coronavirus. Yes, children are at risk of infection, yes, it is terrible for parents. However, the vast majority of children have mild symptoms; they recover quickly.


The risks of keeping schools closed outweigh the health risks associated with the epidemic.


There are safe ways to do this. School activities will need to be aligned with public health measures, as well as adjustments when new information is received on risks of  transmission of infection.


Of course, much work needs to be done to improve health in schools, especially in the poorest communities. For example, providing washbasins, hand washing utensils, disinfecting buildings, maintaining physical distance. Nevertheless, the reality is obvious. Investing in security regulations is extremely rewarding.


School activities will never be the first! We need safer, better schools. We need innovative approaches to learning. Technology needs to be more accessible to all children in order to bridge the digital divide. But it’s time to get the kids back on track. It is time to reopen the schools.


Full text in Armenian

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