Why Schools Must Reopen Soon
The cost of the COVID-19 pandemic is already immeasurable. It has crippled economies around the globe, placed an unprecedented burden on healthcare systems, and killed millions of people, altering lives in a way that was unforeseen prior to March 2020.
Yet, the pandemic’s toll on the education, especially the children in primary Grades, is still to be assessed. In an alarming eye-opener, UNICEF recently revealed that schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours – and counting – of in-person learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. As a result, young learners have been cut off from their education and the other vital benefits schools provide.
On the side-lines of the United Nations General Assembly, where world leaders are gathered in person, UNICEF unveiled the ‘No Time to Lose’ installation at the UN Headquarters in New York, to call attention to the on-going education crisis. The centrepiece of the installation is a clock, modelled to look like the blackboard of an empty classroom, situated at the UN Visitors’ Plaza in front of the General Assembly Building.
The clock is a realtime counter, displaying the growing cumulative number of in-person learning hours every schoolchild in the world has lost and continues to lose since the pandemic’s onset. The empty classroom consists of 18 desks, one for every month of the pandemic-caused education disruptions.
The installation was set up in time for the UNGA, when delegations from around the world where the doors of schools remain closed to children and young people, will visit to make speeches. At the inauguration of the installation, UN Secretary-General AntónioGuterres said, “We are short-changing an entire generation whose minds and futures hang in the balance.
We must prioritise the reopening of schools and support those who have lost out during the pandemic. There is no time to lose.” UNIFEC says the installation acts as a stark reminder that millions of schoolchildren remain locked out of their schools and a call for leaders to act urgently on this education crisis. Globally, around 131 million schoolchildren in 11 countries have missed three-quarters of their in-person learning from March 2020 to September 2021. Among them, 59 per cent – or nearly 77 million – have missed almost all in-person instruction time. Around 27 per cent of countries continue to have schools fully or partially closed.
Additionally, according to UNESCO’s latest data, more than 870 million students at all levels are currently facing disruptions to their education. UNICEF urges Governments, local authorities, and school administrations to reopen schools as soon as possible and take all possible steps to prevent transmission of the virus in schools.
They have proposed following guidelines to be adopted in order to mitigate the virus spread: • Implementing mask policies for students and staff that are in accordance with national and local guidelines; • Providing handwashing facilities and/or hand sanitiser; • Frequently cleaning surfaces and shared objects; • Ensuring adequate and appropriate ventilation; • Cohorting (keeping students and teachers in small groups that do not mix); staggering start, break, bathroom, meals and end time; and alternating physical presence; • Establishing information sharing mechanisms with parents, students and teachers; • While not a prerequisite to reopen schools, teachers should be prioritised to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, after frontline health workers and those most at risk, to protect them from community transmission.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore says, “Every hour a child spends in the classroom is precious – an opportunity to expand their horizons and maximise their potential. And with each passing moment, countless amounts of opportunity are lost. Also, 1.8 trillion hours – and counting – is an unfathomable amount of time. Equally unfathomable is setting priorities around mitigating the impacts of COVID that do not put our children’s future first.
We can and must reopen schools as soon as possible. The clock is ticking.” Sri Lanka first closed schools in March 2020, when the first COVID-19 patient was reported in the island, as part of its stringent measures to control the virus spread. From that time until September 2021, schools were reopened twice, once in August 2020 and again in February 2021.
However, those periods did not last long due to surging case numbers. During that period, education authorities conducted three national examinations for the year 2020 – Grade 5 Scholarship Exam, GCE O/L and GCE A/L Exams, albeit delayed.
However, with the disruptions caused to studies due to the school closure as well as the on-going teachers’ strike, there is no hope of having either one of those exams this year. A number of educationists and child psychologists have pointed out that it is crucial for children in their formative years to experience social interaction that schools generally provide for them.
Taking these factors into consideration, the Director General of Health Services recently submitted guidelines to the Education Ministry, in order to reopen schools with less than 200 students, only for classes below Grade 5. Now it is up to the Education authorities to take a final decision on reopening schools while strictly adhering to health guidelines.