17th Jan 2022

Keeping schools in Europe open 'vital', warn WHO and Unicef

  • Due to the school closures, children in Europe missed more than 30 weeks of school last year (Photo: Pixabay)
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The World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef have called on European countries to keep schools open throughout the pandemic, by making teachers a target group in national vaccination programmes and implementing safety measures to minimise the risk of infection.

"The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history," said the head of the WHO's Europe region Hans Kluge.

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As schools prepare to reopen after the summer holidays, he said that it was "vital that classroom-based learning continues uninterrupted" - despite the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant.

"This is of paramount importance for children's education, mental health and social skills," he explained.

"Our children have suffered greatly over the past 20 months, especially those who were already vulnerable and or could not benefit from digital ways of teaching. Unlike a year ago, we are now in a position to keep them safe," Kluge added.

Due to the school closures, children missed more than 30 weeks of school last year in Europe.

According to the EU agency on fundamental rights, many children with disabilities and from socio-economically disadvantaged families were unable to participate in distance learning.

Echoing that message, Belgrade high school teacher Milena Maric praised the quick roll-out of online lessons in Serbia when the pandemic began last year, while warning that "students lacked continuity, socialising, collaborative work, the sharing of ideas in real-time and communication without technology".

The joint statement from the WHO and Unicef comes amid fears over a new surge of cases in Europe, where several countries are starting to report an increased burden on hospitals.

A higher incidence makes transmission in schools much more likely, the UN agencies warned.

"The pandemic is not over. [But] children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning," said Philippe Cori, UNICEF regional director for Europe and Central Asia.

"Vaccination and protective measures together will help prevent a return to the darkest days of the pandemic, when people had to endure lockdowns and children had to experience disruption of learning," he added.

The UN agencies urged countries to implement vaccination strategies for teachers and for children over-12 with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe Covid-19.

They also recall the importance of additional measures such as better ventilation, smaller classroom sizes, physical distancing and regular testing of children and school staff.

In the EU, it is the responsibility of member states to ensure conditions that allow for running schools safely.

Most EU countries are encouraging parents to vaccinate children aged between 12 and 17 before the start of the new school year.

And some, like Italy and Greece, have taken a hardline on their vaccination campaign, requiring teachers to show a vaccine certificate, a negative test or a recovery proof to do their jobs.

In the UK, meanwhile, where social-distancing and face-covering measures have been relaxed, health authorities have been told to prepare a plan to vaccinate those in the 12-15 age group - amid fears over a potential rise in infections linked to the return to school in September.


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