Schools should only close as a last resort, the head of the World Health Organization has said, as research shows that half of students around the world have still not returned to the classroom.
At the height of the pandemic lockdown 1.6 billion children in 192 countries were shut out of school, according to Unicef.
However, the latest data show that 872 million children in 51 countries are still unable to go back to the classroom. And one in four countries have not yet specified a date for when schools will reopen.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, told an online press briefing that given the “devastating consequences on children… the decision to close schools should be a last resort, temporary and only at a local level in areas with intense transmission”.
Executive director of Unicef Henrietta Fore said around a third of children – 463m – were unable to access any kind of remote learning when schools were shuttered.
“The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted is nothing short of a global education emergency,” she said.
She added: “24 million children are projected to drop out of school due to Covid-19 – that’s why we’re urging governments to prioritise opening schools when restrictions are lifted.”
Dr Tedros said that data show that less than 10 per cent of reported Covid-19 cases and less than 0.2 per cent of deaths are in people are under the age of 20. However, children and adolescents have “suffered in other ways”, he said.
New guidance on the reopening of schools from WHO and Unicef states that to ensure schools remain open authorities must keep transmission down by the usual methods of test, trace, track and isolate.
In addition, schools should ensure staff and students maintain physical distance of at least a metre and consider introducing staggered start and finish times, increase handwashing facilities and ensure adequate ventilation.
But Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s head of emergencies, said that over the coming months everyone had a role to play in ensuring schools can stay open.
“What’s more important? Having the children back in school or nightclubs and bars open? These are the decisions we are going to have to make as we come to the winter months,” he said. “These are trade-offs, there are no easy answers.”
Infection will grow “no question” in Europe as people move back indoors in the coming months, said Dr Ryan.
He praised teachers and administrators around the world for their “huge efforts” to get children back to school, but said the rest of the population must support that work in their own behaviour.
He said: “The best thing we can do to support our children back in school is reduce our risk of being exposed and reduce our chance of exposing others.
He added: “There are no magic bullets, I’ve said it before. And we need to stop looking for unicorns.”
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