WHO urges Sierra Leone to promote safe return to school

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is urging the government to ensure that as they prepare for the reopening of schools they must take all necessary precautions to keep the children safe from the coronavirus. School closures implemented to protect students from COVID-19 are hurting them in other ways, while the long-term impact of this disruption to education could create a “lost generation” in Sierra Leone, two UN agencies said over the weekend. The WHO and UNICEF urged the government to promote a safe return to the classroom, while also limiting the spread of the virus.

“Schools have paved the way to success for Sierra Leone and the African continent as a whole. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” said Dr Evans Majani Liyosi, the WHO boss in Sierra Leone. “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. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents, and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.”

He said many African countries are on the same path, adding that the same message of keeping the schools and children safe is being given to all by the WHO and UNICEF. Dr Liyosi said a WHO survey of 39 sub-Saharan African countries has revealed that schools are open in only six nations and partially open in 19; schools are closed in 14 nations, although 12 plan to resume classroom learning in September, the start of the academic year. The disruption to education has resulted in poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in the mental development of children.

UNICEF found violence against children has increased in Eastern and Southern Africa. With 10 million children missing out on school meals, nutrition rates have decreased, with especially high risk among girls, particularly those who have been displaced or from low-income households. Meanwhile, the World Bank has highlighted the potential long-term social and economic impact of shutdowns in sub-Saharan Africa, which could result in lifetime earning losses of $4,500 per child.

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities,” said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall.  While also recommending other important measures, such as regular hand washing and daily cleaning of surfaces, a recent report by the two UN agencies found millions of children attend schools that lack water and sanitation services. This has also been reported in Sierra Leone and the WASH partners are now working with the Ministry of Basic Education to sanitise the schools and provide water and other hygienic materials before the reopening of schools on 15th September.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services, while less than half have basic sanitation. Dr Liyosi said the COVID-19 pandemic thus provides an opportunity for investment and innovative thinking to address these shortages in schools in Sierra Leone.