Mon. Apr 12th, 2021
Ensuring safe schooling during COVID-19

“I’m not too sure that I want to go back to school because I’ve lost my will to learn. But I’m also not so sure that I want to stay at home; I am just really confused at this time.”

This is the reflection of one young person in the WHO European Region who took part in a survey looking at the experience of being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey was run voluntarily by students Emilia, Frida and Malika, and included a total of 927 responses from 10- to 19-year-olds from 16 countries collected over 4 months. Pupils responding to the survey also called attention to problems with online learning and the sacrifices they have made to support the wider community. These are some of their responses.

“[Online learning] … isn’t the same as in-class learning. It feels like some of the teachers and students very rarely have enough energy to give to the lesson, and to let the information be absorbed properly.”

“Our education system is not ready for online learning, and the problems we have now online are the same we had a year ago. Sometimes you don’t even hear the teacher … I know that teachers are also sad about the situation.”

“Of course, we don’t want our grandparents to die or intensive care units (ICUs) to be overburdened. Of course, we want to do our share for our community and protect it. But we also need to see our community do their share for us. How can we justify the closing of schools while shops or hairdressers and restaurants reopen?”

Situation in the WHO European Region

These were just some of the responses shared at the 4th meeting of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on Safe Schooling During the COVID-19 Pandemic, held on 9 March 2021. The TAG pointed out that children and adolescents have missed 22 weeks of school on average, due to partial or complete closures caused by COVID-19.

A status report presented at the meeting noted that as of 8 March 2021, 31 countries in the Region have suspended in-person teaching at some levels or for specific age groups. Ten countries have suspended schooling at all levels and have moved entirely to distance education. Eleven countries have in-person teaching but require adaptations such as masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene.

There is also variation across the Region in terms of rapid diagnostic testing, with 16 countries having either a standing recommendation or a requirement for students, teachers, staff or home communities to complete a rapid diagnostic test. Six countries require rapid diagnostic testing for teachers only, 1 country requires students to provide negative COVID-19 tests when travelling to school, and 2 countries require parents to present tests when dropping off or picking up their children.

Thirteen countries in the Region have a standing recommendation or requirement for students, teachers or staff to wear masks when in the school environment.

Recommendations in keeping with emerging evidence

The TAG was set up to provide advice to WHO/Europe on matters relating to schooling in times of COVID-19. This includes advice on the epidemiology of school transmission, infection prevention and control, and public health measures and their effects on the development and well-being of school-aged children.

It aims to identify findings from emerging evidence to inform policy decisions on educational, social, developmental and health outcomes for children and adolescents. Based on their review, the TAG noted that:

  • even with the wider spread of more infectious variants, there is no evidence that schools contribute in a major way to community transmission;
  • school closures by themselves will not control the pandemic; and
  • measures such as physical distancing, masks, hand hygiene and ventilation, applied in an age-appropriate way, should allow schools to stay open even with increasing numbers of infected people in the community.

The TAG also reiterated points raised in earlier meetings, including that:

  • closing schools should be a last resort;
  • schools should be among the first to reopen; and
  • young people in schools need to be part of the decision-making process on prioritizing and implementing interventions that affect them.
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