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newtimes - 2 month ago

To re-open the schools or not open them just yet?

When to re-open the schools as the pandemic rages is an issue governments around the world are grappling with. Part of the dilemma is, whether they re-open next month or next year, we will still have to contend with Covid-19 for a while. With schools open there is always a risk of spread among students and teachers. Rwanda is doing better than many countries in regards containing the spread but concerned Members of Parliament had to be assured the government was seized of the situation. “The reopening of schools will be based on a health assessment,” the Prime Minister explained. But then, there are also the concerns what impact the lengthy stay out of school may have on the children. Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described how the world as facing a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures. “We already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic,” he said. “Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” He detailed a number of effects, noting that despite the delivery of lessons by television, radio and online, and the best efforts of teachers and parents, many students remain out of reach. The case for re-opening the schools is urgent, but it is fraught with risks. Re-infections in countries that had curbed the spread show the danger, urging great caution. I read about Israel and thought it offers a pertinent example of what could be in store should there be a misreading of the conditions. Confident it had beaten the coronavirus and desperate to reboot a devastated economy, wrote the New York Times this week, the Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May. Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world. The Times’ analysis says the virus rippled out to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighbourhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives. Other outbreaks forced hundreds of schools to close. Across the country, tens of thousands of students and teachers were quarantined. All this took place within the space of a month. It may seem obvious, but one of the lessons from the experience is that infections flare unexpectedly. One should not be too confident of infection rate status. It can be deceptive. Another lesson is to be careful the decisions you make. At one point, following a heatwave, the Israeli government exempted everyone from wearing masks for four days, mainly because parents complained about forcing children to wear masks in the uncomfortable heat. The four days might have seemed few, but experts noted the decision had been disastrous. Of course, the Israeli situation does not quite equate with countries in Africa – except that the pandemic has exposed similar weaknesses across the world even in the most advanced countries, thereby offering examples we could draw lessons from. Certainly, the closure of schools shows how the pandemic has pitted us all together. In mid-July, according to Secretary-General Guterres, schools were closed in more than 160 countries, affecting more than 1 billion students. At least 40 million students worldwide have missed out on education in their critical pre-school year. Also, across the world learners with disabilities, those in minority or disadvantaged communities, displaced and refugee students, and those in remote areas are at highest risk of being left behind. Though ultimately it will be up to individual countries to assess their situation and make the decision to re-open the schools, many developing countries will still need some assistance to tackle all these issues. During his observations on school closures, Guterres also launched the “Save our Future” campaign with education partners and United Nations agencies. They will be working on ways to prioritise school openings once local coronavirus outbreaks subside, including targeting education in relief funding and exploring new teaching methods. The views expressed in this  article are of the author.


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