South Africa


The message is clear: As lockdown measures ease, let’s reopen the classrooms

The message is clear: As lockdown measures ease, let’s reopen the classrooms
A Grade 12 pupil at the Oakdale Secondary School sanitises her hands before commencing with school after spending over two and a half months at home, 8 June 2020. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

We urge leaders, communities, parents, and teachers to employ the same agility and urgency to safely reopen schools as has been used to open up economies. The long-term impact of extending the school lockdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities. Sadly, on these fronts, the evidence is overwhelming.

Across Eastern and Southern Africa, a debate is raging in the corridors of power: from governments to development partners; communities to teachers’ unions; and even around the family dining table. The controversial question everyone is grappling with is whether it is now safe or appropriate for children to return to school.

Despite conflicting opinions on the question, there’s no mistaking the strong, almost visceral response shared by all: There is a need to protect the young from the risk of harm brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of this unprecedented public health crisis, it is true that families, communities and governments are averse to making any call that might bring harm to children.  

And yet increasingly, evidence points to harm being done to children by not being in school.

We are seeing most sectors gradually reopen, except the education sector. This has been due to a growing consensus that both the formal and informal economies cannot afford to remain shut down indefinitely. People must be able to earn a living. 

As such, in supermarkets and shopping malls, there have been quick adaptations: temperature checks are a new normal, hand sanitisers and hand washing points are becoming ubiquitous, and stickers on floors guide physical distancing. Meanwhile, the informal markets are beginning to teem with people wearing face masks, as they trade, barter and transact.

Business is resuming.

It is against this background that we urge leaders, communities, parents, and teachers to employ the same agility and urgency to safely reopen schools. The long-term impact of extending the school lockdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities. Sadly, on these fronts, the evidence is overwhelming.

When schools across 20 countries in this region shut down in mid-March 2020, forcing 127 million learners out of school, we knew very little about Covid-19 and its impact on children. However, our knowledge is improving daily to ensure safety in reopening schools. 

We know that children are the least directly affected by Covid-19 and are less prone to fall ill from it. Studies have so far found that children account for 2-13% of all infections. Or as the headline stated during June 2020 in the British Medical Journal: “Children are not Covid-19 super spreaders: time to go back to school.” 

We also know from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) that following a reopening in Ireland, Italy and Iceland, primary schools are not a high-risk setting for transmission of Covid-19 between pupils, and among pupils and adult personnel. Various studies confirm the same for secondary schools. However, recognising that the African context is different, access to sanitation would need to be assured in rural areas.

In equal measure, we have gathered evidence that shows that the cost of a continued lockdown is very high for children in Eastern and Southern Africa. Violence rates against children are up. Nutrition rates are down, with 16 million children missing school meals. Recent Ebola outbreaks have taught us that more girls get pregnant during school closures, in fact in Sierra Leone, pregnancy rates doubled, while after extended breaks from school, many children simply never return. 

And then, of course, there are the fiscal losses in learning. Based on World Bank modelling, school closures in sub-Saharan Africa could result in lifetime earnings losses of $4,500 per child. 

While it has been good to see countries seek to pivot to online and remote learning, in Eastern and Southern Africa the harsh truth is that these measures miss most children. As such, we are creating “virtual dropouts”.

There is a way forward: Governments have a roadmap through the technical guidance, “Framework for Reopening Schools”, and can now make the investments required to ensure learning environments meet the minimum standards of safety and sanitation. 

Each country should assess the specific context in terms of the prevailing Covid-19 transmission scenario. Specific public health measures must be taken based on risk analysis before schools reopen, including having numerous hand washing stations, temperature checks, innovative restructuring to ensure physical distancing, enforcing wearing of masks, adequate ventilation of the classrooms and risk communication.

Development partners should take the opportunity to ramp up school water, sanitation and hygiene investments. Programmes that include cash transfers to mitigate the indirect costs of schooling for the poorest children will be key. Importantly, governments should now focus and prioritise the allocation of resources to where they are most needed – and education sits very high on that list. 

Make no mistake, there will be outbreaks in some schools even with these measures. We call for a balanced consideration between the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and the risk of further exposing our communities. DM/MC


Mohamed M. Malick Fall is UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. 

 Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta is UNESCO’s Director of the Multi-Sectoral Office in Nairobi for East Africa.

Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti is WHO’s Regional Director for Africa.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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