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Learning loss: Time to consider reopening schools

Learning loss: Time to consider reopening schools
As governments across the world prioritize economies, 770 million children still aren’t going to school full time.


Learning loss: Time to consider reopening schools

As governments across the world prioritize economies before everything else, it has to be pointed out that 770 million children still aren’t going to school full time. More than 150 million kids in 19 countries had no access to in-person schooling. They were either learning virtually or had no schooling at all.

UNICEF highlighted the fact that primary and secondary schools are shuttered in 19 countries, affecting over 156 million students. It said this should not go on as schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen.

“In their efforts to limit transmission, governments have too often shut down schools and kept them closed for prolonged periods even when the epidemiological situation didn’t warrant it. These actions are frequently taken as a first recourse rather than a last measure. In many cases, schools were closed while bars and restaurants remained open,” UNICEF pointed out.

Robert Jenkins, chief of education for the UN children’s charity UNICEF, says there are many countries in which parents can go out and have a nice steak dinner, but their seven-year-old is not going to school. “That’s a problem. The losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped. From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health. The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages,” UNICEF said.

A growing body of evidence suggests that schools can be opened safely. But that hasn’t quelled debate over whether they should be open and if so, what steps should be taken to limit the spread of the virus. By September, when schools in many parts of the world will open again, fresh concerns and debates will be in play. Many teenagers and preteens will have been vaccinated in the United States and other developed countries. But in some low-and middle-income countries, vaccine access will still be limited. Younger children will probably still be in the queue in most parts of the world. And the virus continues to mutate and evolve.

Back in 2020, scientists discovered that children are the least likely to develop serious illness, but it wasn’t clear whether children were as susceptible to infection as adults, and whether kids who did get infected could pass the virus on to others. Some researchers worried that sending children back to school might fuel the pandemic. But the debate soon shifted from a scientific one to a political one.

Those that reopened in 2020

When Danish primary schools reopened in April 2020, parents worried that their kids were being used as guinea pigs. In France, where schools have mostly remained open, teens protested last November, saying that COVID-19 protections inside classrooms were inadequate. And in some districts, teachers failed to show up as the COVID-19 swept through communities. Parents were reluctant to report cases because they would have to isolate at home with their children and might lose their jobs.

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It’s to be noted that when schools began to open up in March and April 2021, the vast majority of teachers hadn’t yet been vaccinated. That made weighing up the risks and benefits particularly tricky. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, said the biggest risks are for the adults in the school system. “And the benefits of being in the classroom are for the kids.” And as remote learning or online schooling kicked in, researchers argued that remote learning would widen disparities between white students and students of color in many countries.

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