Friday

30th Jul 2021

Opinion

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.

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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.

Disclaimer

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

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