CAPE TOWN — The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Tuesday called on governments, parents, and teachers across Eastern and Southern Africa to urgently and safely re-open schools, as the costs of continued school closures escalate across the region.
Across this region, of the nearly 65 million children remaining out of school, around one in two are not reached by any form of learning, while millions of children continue to miss what was their one nutritious meal of the day, according to UNICEF.
“Seven months into the pandemic, we must be very clear about the gravity of this crisis: we are at risk of losing a generation,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, Regional Director for UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa.
“We see lost learning, rising violence, rising child labor, forced child marriages, teen pregnancies, and diminished nutrition.” A generation of children is at risk, and at the most critical time in the continent’s history, Fall lamented.
As the region is experiencing unprecedented population growth, it’s important that this expanded workforce can receive quality learning at school so as to ensure that the potential for increased production could sustain an economic boom to drastically reduce poverty in Africa – where currently 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s people live on less than two U.S. dollars a day, Fall said.
Safely re-opening schools by the beginning of October this year will give scholars a full term and vastly reduce learning losses, said Fall. A third term for learners presents the last chance to recoup learning losses for 2020 and avert the dangers of permanent school drop-outs, he said. Re-opening will also reduce losses incurred by both parents and governments, Fall added.
UNICEF’s call to safely re-open schools follows scientific evidence which shows children are not super-spreaders of COVID-19, and are the least affected by the virus in the region, with a mere 2.5 percent of COVID-19 cases attributed to children of school-going ages between five to 18 years. Critically, there is growing regional and global practice showing that safe school re-opening can be done with political will and community commitment, said Fall.
Most countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have seen the rationale of a phased return to schools, starting with exam classes in countries such as Botswana, Eritrea, Eswatini, Madagascar, Somalia, Zambia, and recently Malawi and Zimbabwe. Bigger countries with larger COVID-19 caseloads and higher student populations – such as South Africa – have re-opened schools for all grades since the end of August. Fall pledged that UNICEF will support countries in the region, and share working practices on safely re-opening schools.