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Coalition offers schools reopening advice

Humanitarian organizations offered guidelines to help 1.5 billion students who face "an unprecedented risk" if the pandemic keeps schools closed for long.

Humanitarian organizations offered educational guidelines on Thursday meant to help 1.5 billion students worldwide who face "an unprecedented risk" if the COVID-19 pandemic forces schools to remain closed much longer.

The guidelines balance teaching needs with public health concerns. They focus on three phases — before, during and after reopening of schools — and suggest "six key dimensions" for local and national authorities to bear in mind once they identify which schools can reopen: policy, financing, safe operations, learning, reaching the most marginalized, and well-being or protection.

"Policy considerations and financial requirements together create the enabling environment needed to support each of the other dimensions," the Global Education Coalition — which includes UNESCO, UNICEF, World Food Program, or WFP, and World Bank — said in the 5-page educational guidelines.

Many of the children are no longer getting reliable meals or health care.

“In the poorest countries, children often rely on schools for their only meal of the day. But with many schools now closed because of COVID, 370 million children are missing out on these nutritious meals which are a lifeline for poor families," said WFP's Executive Director David Beasley.

"They are also being denied the health support they normally get through school," he said. "This could do lasting damage, so when schools reopen it is critical that these meal programs and health services are restored, which can also help to draw the most vulnerable children back to school."

Widespread school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic were necessary to protect children's lives. But they also posed  "an unprecedented risk to children’s education and wellbeing, particularly for the most marginalized children who rely on school for their education, health, safety and nutrition," the organizations said in a statement.

"While we do not yet have enough evidence to measure the effect of school closures on the risk of disease transmission, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety, well-being and learning are well documented," they said. "Interrupting education services also has serious, long-term consequences for economies and societies such as increased inequality, poorer health outcomes, and reduced social cohesion."

Protecting 'vulnerable groups'

Before reopening schools, the organizations proposed that authorities focus first on communities with the lowest transmission rates, limit classes to part of the week or select grades, and develop ways to ensure physical distancing will still occur.

When the schools reopen, hand-washing stations and other hygienic measures should be in place, the organizations said. Then authorities must keep monitoring for infections.

Though the reopening of schools is a positive development, said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Director-General Audrey Azoulay, it is essential that they reopen in an orderly manner, in line with a number of preconditions.

"International coordination, based on the sharing of experiences and meeting the needs expressed by countries, is essential to rise to these immense challenges,” she said in a statement. “This issue is vital for vulnerable groups, especially girls, as schools help protect against violence and inequalities.”

UNICEF's Executive Director Henrietta Fore said rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labor and child marriage are long-term threats for children who miss out on school.

“We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return," she said in a statement. "Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”