WHO, UNICEF urge African countries to reopen schools safely

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African governments should accelerate the reopening of schools, the World Health Organization has urged, saying that the continent’s youths will suffer from prolonged closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation and teenage pregnancies are among the problems faced by students remaining out of school in sub-Saharan Africa, WHO officials warned Thursday.

Only six African countries have fully opened schools, according to a survey of 39 countries by WHO and UNICEF.

Many governments closed schools as part of measures to limit the transmission of the coronavirus. Some reopened and then had to close again when virus cases broke out in the schools. Kenya, for instance, has closed its primary and secondary schools for the rest of 2020.

This has had hurt school feeding programs, which provided meals to more than 10 million children in Africa. Online learning is almost impossible as 80% of Africa’s students don’t have access to the internet and electricity can be unreliable.

“We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation. Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

“Schools have paved the way to success for many Africans. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” she said at a virtual press conference Thursday.

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks even greater harm to children, their future and their communities,” said UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall.

Reopening schools has been particularly challenging in Africa, where millions of children attend crowded classrooms, and schools often lack running water and proper toilets. In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services, according to a WHO and UNICEF report assessing progress on these facilities between 2009 and 2018.