30th Jul 2021


Use the summer to prepare for a safe return to school

  • Children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning (Photo: Pixabay)

A school is so much more than a building. It's a place of safety, learning and play – all three so vital in the growth and development of our children. But the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted schooling for an entire generation of children and young people, on a scale never witnessed before.

In Europe and Central Asia, children have missed more than 30 weeks of school. Full school closures have lasted an average of 13 weeks and partial school closures 12 weeks. In some countries the disruption has been much longer: there are many children who have been unable to participate fully in face-to-face learning for as long as 38 weeks - in some cases by as much as 43 weeks.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The impact is serious. Evidence suggests that missing 50 percent of the school year can lead to a year in lost learning.

Three months of school closures could mean between 50 to 87 percent lost in hard-earned educational gains. Not only is this bad for children's mental and emotional well-being, it can set them back in their development, with potentially long-lasting impacts on their quality of life.

Of course, precautions need to be taken to minimise the risks of Covid-19 in school settings. But we can't lose sight that in our effort to control the most serious public health crisis in decades, we could end up robbing children of the futures they deserve. We must therefore also support children's overall well-being alongside the need to keep face-to-face learning a reality during the pandemic.

Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen

Children and young people have been the silent victims of the pandemic, and the most marginalised among them particularly so.

Children with disabilities (the largest group of out-of-school children in the region); ethnic and linguistic minority children (such as Roma); refugee children; the poorest; and those living in remote areas were disproportionately affected. Prior to Covid-19, these children were already out-of-school, or in school, but not learning at the same level as their peers.

The pandemic worsened an already unacceptable situation.

During the peak of school closures, one-in-three learners in Europe and Central Asia could not access digital and remote learning - for vulnerable learners, the possibility of access to remote learning was even smaller. Such gaps, along with the digital divide, further compound the challenges in delivering quality, inclusive learning.

We know that remote learning cannot replace face-to-face education. Even when remote learning works, we cannot ignore the adverse psychosocial effect of being at home, away from friends and peers. Children have felt isolated from their social networks for months at a time and the unpredictability of it all can be hard to understand.

To address the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on the education, mental and social well-being of children requires first identifying what they have missed and providing support to bridge these gaps.

We therefore urge schools to prioritise accelerated and remedial learning to make up for lost learning, while also addressing the mental health challenges children have faced over the past 18 months. Otherwise, these losses will exclude children from future opportunities.

Throughout the pandemic, UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO have supported countries to plan, prioritise, and reach the most marginalized children and youth. Our collective goal has been to ensure that all children and youth can be back in school, receiving tailored services to support learning, health and psychosocial well-being; with all teachers equipped and prepared to address learning losses among their students and incorporate digital technology into teaching; and leveraging the full potential of digitalisation and innovative partnerships to improve learning especially for those left behind.

Eight-step plan to return to class

In order to mitigate school disruptions, WHO Europe has brought together member states through a regional Technical Advisory Group that includes experts from both health and education to provide advice on a safe return to school. The panel of experts have made eight recommendations:

1. Keep schools open.

2. Put in place a testing strategy.

3. Gather empirical evidence from school settings.

4. Protect children's mental and social well-being.

5. Protect the most vulnerable and marginalised children.

6. Improve the school environment.

7. Involve children & adolescents in decision-making.

8. Implement a vaccination strategy designed to keep children in school.

While Covid-19 has challenged education systems, affected mental health and threatened to reverse the hard-won gains across the region, we have been able to reimagine and innovate.

Everyone with a stake in education: teachers, parents, caregivers, as well as children themselves, must be congratulated for adapting to their 'new' learning environment.

If we are to prevent the pandemic from having a life-long impact on an entire generation of children and young people - especially the most marginalised - we must ensure that schools reopen and stay open safely. Children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Pandemic exposed gulf in EU digital-schooling

EU states who invested in digital education were better able to protect students from the pandemic, a new report has said. Meanwhile, poor and rural pupils were worse off.


Covid-19's impact on Spanish Roma

There has been a lack of food and of basic necessities in many Roma households, which were already living in a state of extreme poverty and vulnerability: more than 40 percent experienced difficulty in accessing food.

Undocumented workers are Covid-19 'elephant in room'

There is a pan-European systemic issue: from Spain and Italy to France, Belgium, or Poland, harvests are under threat and Europeans are entirely dependent on the hard labour and sweat of foreign-born workers. The elephant in the room? Regularisation.

Can Greece work with Biden to solve the West Balkans impasse?

Greece has always been Europe's outlier. It faces an implacably hostile neighbour in Turkey under its assertive authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Until Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Greece had no European Union member state as a neighbour.

Why 'Fit for 55' isn't fit for purpose

In a worst-case scenario, the EU's climate policies would exclude developing nations from international trade, forcing them to trade with each other, forming economic and environmental 'ghettos' while the wealthy West enjoys the benefits of free trade and clean energy.

News in Brief

  1. Officials worried at infection-surge on Greek holiday islands
  2. EU calls on online platforms to tackle vaccine hesitancy
  3. Russia accused of falling short on Sputnik V deliveries
  4. France: UK quarantine rules 'discriminatory'
  5. Italy's government reaches deal on judicial reform
  6. EU adopts guidelines to 'climate-proof' infrastructure projects
  7. US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation
  8. EU to buy 220,000 supplies of potential Covid treatment


Does democracy need troublemakers?

Comedians, businessmen and other outsiders – think of Edward Snowden, Slawi Trifonow (the TV star who won the Bulgarian elections recently), or Donald Trump – try to disrupt power, pretending to expose political elites. Why is this happening?

Ukraine - Zelensky's authoritarian turn?

President Volodymyr Zelensky has begun his third year mired in mid-term unpopularity with a poll showing only 21.8 percent of Ukrainians would vote to re-elect him. More than half would prefer him not even to run for a second term.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance

Latest News

  1. Malta responsible for journalist's death, inquiry finds
  2. Can Greece work with Biden to solve the West Balkans impasse?
  3. EU and UK frustrated at US travel ban extension
  4. Polish judges rally behind EU court ruling
  5. Why 'Fit for 55' isn't fit for purpose
  6. EU hits vaccination target, as Delta variant now dominates
  7. European arms 'displaced over a million people', research finds
  8. Brexit: what is the 'Lugano Convention' and does it matter?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us