Reopening schools: When, where and how?

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It has been around two months since schools closed in more than 190 countries, affecting 1.57 billion children and youth - 90% of the world’s student population. Closures happened in quick succession as a measure to contain the Covid-19 virus. Just as speedily, governments deployed measures for learning to continue through platforms, television and radio in what has been the most far-reaching experiment in the history of education. But when it comes to reopening schools, the tempo is far more uncertain. According to UNESCO data, 100 countries have not yet announced a date for schools to reopen, 65 have plans for partial or full reopening, while 32 will end the academic year online. For 890 million students however, the school calendar has never been so undefined.

When and how to reopen schools is one of the toughest and most sensitive decisions on political agendas today. Is it safe to reopen schools or is there a risk of reigniting infections? What are the consequences to children’s mental health and to the social development of young children? Are students engaged in remote learning actually learning? And when the time comes, how will schools ensure students return and help learners who have fallen behind during school closures?

The decision is complex because the pandemic continues to evolve, and not in linear manner. There is insufficient evidence on risks of transmission. Everywhere, confinement will be lifted gradually, with many question marks on how the process will be managed, to a great extent because there are many characteristics of the virus that we just don’t know. Yet, even with the current uncertainties, governments can anticipate and prepare to reopen schools successfully, putting the necessary safeguards in place.

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently called on governments and donors to prioritize education for all children, including the most marginalized. The Global Education Coalition was set up to support governments in strengthening distance learning and facilitating the reopening of shcools.  

As one can expect, the longer the school interruption, the larger the learning loss. Hence, the earlier schools can reopen, the less risk of long-term damage to the learning journeys and well-being of millions of children. We are concerned that prolonged school closures will exacerbate inequalities, deepen the learning crisis and expose the most vulnerable children to heightened risk of exploitation. We know from other crises that the longer marginalized children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. After the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we saw increased rates of sexual exploitation and teen pregnancy, demonstrating how girls are particularly at risk during school closures.

Schools are not only places of learning. They provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support that are a life security for the most disadvantaged, and this applies in all countries, from low to high income. The World Food Programme estimates that 370 million children are not receiving school meals as a result of school closures. As half the world’s students don’t have access to a household computer, the chance of learning loss over this period is nearly inevitable. How large that loss will be will depend on the effectiveness of alternative channels that are being widely used. But in any case, it will never fully compensate. Add to that the social isolation from friends and teachers, anxiety, displacement and possible death of loved ones in the worst cases, and the psychological toll of school closures rises by the day. 

This is not a simple matter of weighing risks and benefits. The absolute priority is to safeguard the lives and well-being of communities, including children and teaching personnel. Even if dates cannot be announced yet, planning for school reopening begins now.

Consultation and communication with parents, teachers, students and communities at large are necessary to understand concerns and address them. This ensures the confidence and support to school reopening that is a prerequisite for informing policies, financing and operational measures. The key message is that these decisions are context specific, and depend on the capacity of schools to mitigate risks of infection transmission and promote healthy behaviours. Critical conditions to assess include access to soap and clean water for handwashing, and protocols on social distancing. Safety can also mean reducing the number of students on site, through double shifts, prioritizing early grades or particular target groups, or continuing with a blended learning approach.  

After safety, there must be a focus on the learning recovery process – from assessing learning outcomes during school closures, ensuring their socio-emotional well-being and taking measures to address disparities through remedial approaches. Support to teachers and their professional development will be essential to success.

School reopening during this global crisis is not a return to normal. We must do things not only differently, but better. Just as the most marginalized students were most at risk of being left behind by distance learning modalities, they must be the priority of any back to school strategy. Schools have to proactively bring them back and provide support. This can entail flexible learning approaches, practices to expand access to previously out-of-school children, displaced and migrant children, minorities and other excluded groups. It will require recognizing the particular challenge of girls and young mothers who might face stigma and discriminatory school re-entry laws that prevent them from accessing education. The risk of some students, particularly those of secondary age, that have been disengaged for a long period from school to never return is very high. That risk has to be reduced by active public policy such as communication campaigns targeting those most at risk, engaging with families and communities, or providing scholarships. 

As discussed in the World Bank report on the impact of the pandemic on education and the policy responses, we must capitalize on innovations and gather important lessons on the use of technology at this unprecedented scale to move to a new normal. This can constitute a turning point to use new pedagogies to tackle the learning crisis and provide more inclusive and creative learning models. Now is the time to build back better, to make education systems more inclusive and better prepared to face and overcome possible crisis in the future, including climate-related ones. And more than ever, this is a time to protect education – and education budgets - from the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic.

Because we share the same aspiration for schools to reopen in a timely manner and safely and to safeguard every child’s right to education, UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Programme and the World Bank have joined forces to produce guidance that offers practical advice for national and local authorities on how to keep children safe when they return to school. The Framework for Reopening Schools is designed as a flexible tool for policy makers and planners, highlighting all the factors that will make this experience a successful one for students, teachers, principals, parents and the wider community.

The best interest of the child is the main objective. Our aim is to reopen better, healthier and safer schools. And this is an opportunity to build education systems that are more inclusive, support ALL children to learn and are more resilient in future crises. We must seize this opportunity.

More on COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response

Authors

Stefania Giannini

Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO

Robert Jenkins

Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division

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