When reopening schools: Ensure adequate safety measures – WHO
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The World Health Organisation (WHO), Sri Lanka, with regard to the reopening of schools in Sri Lanka said restarting schools may be considered with adequate safety and surveillance measures using appropriate strategies e.g. staggered opening, with primary sections first or using hybrid learning. The WHO Colombo Office had held discussions regarding reopening schools with 11 Member States of the WHO’s South-East Asia Region (SEAR) including Sri Lanka, who pledged to regulate the safe reopening of schools in the context of COVID-19, and to make every school a health-promoting school.
The WHO Colombo Office said on behalf of the Education and Health Ministers of WHO’s SEAR, Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella had also put forward the ‘Call for Action’ along with Minister of Education Dinesh Gunawardena, who also attended the meeting on 11 October. The WHO has developed detailed guidance on healthrelated issues for countries considering reopening of schools, as Sri Lanka is doing.
Studies indicate that children are less affected by COVID-19 infection and, also, that the severity of infection is lower. Children make up 8 per cent of COVID-19 cases globally, while they constitute 30 per cent of the population. Within the age group, infection occurs more often in teenagers rather than in younger children. Overall, school prevalence reflects the background of transmission in the communities they operate.
The ‘Call for Action’ emphasises the importance of schools as settings for delivering health-related interventions for children and adolescents in becoming productive citizens as a key determinant of the Sustainable Development Goals, the WHO said. The meeting was organised by WHO with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Food Programme (WFP). The UNICEF stated that schools should be the last to close and the first to open, in line with WHO guidelines. The longer children are out of school, the more difficult it will be for them to return.
As such, gains made in increasing access to children’s education in recent decades risk being lost and, in the worse cases, reversed completely. The reopening of schools provides an opportunity to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the education of children but only if concerted efforts are made by all stakeholders – government, private sector, development partners and parents. The WHO said “It is paramount that recovery efforts in the education sector affirmatively focus on the worst affected categories of children – the youngest, those with special needs, in rural areas and the poor.
No child should be left behind.” WHO added that there are two facts relevant here for Sri Lanka: First, the high vaccination coverage that includes over 95 per cent of all school staff; and, the clear transition to transmission Situation Level 2 over the past weeks with a significant decline in cases and deaths. WHO emphasised the critical importance of safe opening with comprehensive public and social measures, with special attention to those at-risk. Implementing this requires a multi-layered approach anchored in the local context and involving school staff, parents, children and the community. Further, overall planning and monitoring needs to be in place in a way that is consistent and reinforcing across levels-national, district and schools, the WHO said.