UNICEF & WHO: ‘Keep schools in Europe and Central Asia open and protect from COVID’

Children’s charity UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) say measures must be introduced to help keep European and Asian schools open by being better protected from the highly-infectious Delta variant of COVID-19. 

Even as the variant continues to develop across the world, the organisations believe that everything should be done to ensure that classroom-based learning can be maintained after what it calls ‘the most catastrophic disruption to education in history’.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, said: “This is of paramount importance for children’s education, mental health and social skills, for schools to help equip our children to be happy and productive members of society.”

This latest joint call for action includes offering teachers and other school staff the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the target population groups in national vaccination plans, and also ensuring vaccination of vulnerable populations.

They also say that children aged 12 and over with underlying medical conditions that significantly increase their risk for put that at greater risk of severe COVID-19 disease must be vaccinated. Also suggested are improvements to the school environment through better classroom ventilation, smaller class sizes where possible, physical distancing and regular testing of children and staff, are other important actions.

Scaling up vaccinations

“It will be some time before we can put the pandemic behind us but educating children safely in a physical school setting must remain our primary objective, so we don’t rob them of the opportunities they so deserve,” said Kluge. “We encourage all countries to keep schools open and urge all schools to put in place measures to minimize the risk of COVID-19 and the spread of different variants.”

The highly transmissible  SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant has added an additional layer of concern and complication to this year’s school opening season. The high incidence of COVID-19 in the community makes transmission in schools much more likely. Therefore, we must all commit to reducing the transmission of the virus.

Data clearly shows that receiving a full COVID-19 vaccination series significantly reduces the risk of severe disease and death. Therefore, when called to take the vaccine please do so and make sure you complete the full vaccine dose series.

“Vaccination is our best line of defence against the virus, and for the pandemic to end we must rapidly scale up vaccinations fairly in all countries, including supporting vaccine production and sharing of doses, to protect the most vulnerable, everywhere. We must also continue to follow the public health and social measures we know work, including testing, sequencing, tracing, isolation and quarantine,” Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge said.

A whole-of-society responsibility

Milena Maric is a high school mathematics teacher from Belgrade, Serbia, who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. She said, “For almost two years, the words ‘COVID-19’ and ‘online schooling’ have marked our lives. When the pandemic started, the school system in Serbia adapted rapidly.

“But the students lacked continuity, socializing, collaborative work, the sharing of ideas in real-time, communication without technology. I know that the only way out of this situation is if we keep respecting measures to prevent the transmission of the virus and if we vaccinate all educators.”

Philippe Cori, Deputy Regional Director, from UNICEF Europe and Central Asia said, “The pandemic is not over. We all have a part to play to ensure that schools remain open across the Region. Children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning. Vaccination and protective measures together will help prevent a return to the darkest days of the pandemic when people had to endure lockdowns and children had to experience disruption of learning.”

Expert recommendations:

To help keep schools open and safe, WHO, UNICEF, and UNESCO have endorsed a set of eight expert recommendations developed by the WHO European Technical Advisory group for schooling during COVID-19.  For use by the 53 Member States in the WHO European Region they are:

  1. Schools to be among the last places to close and the first to re-open.
  2. Put in place a testing strategy.
  3. Ensure effective risk-mitigation measures.
  4. Protect children’s mental and social well-being.
  5. Protect the most vulnerable and marginalized children.
  6. Improve the school environment.
  7. Involve children & adolescents in decision-making.
  8. Implement a vaccination strategy designed to keep children in school.

Cori added: “Children have been the silent victims of the pandemic, and the most marginalized have been amongst the hardest hit. Prior to COVID-19, the region’s most vulnerable children were already out-of-school, or in school, but not learning at the same level as their classmates.

“A school is so much more than a building. It’s a place of learning, safety, and play at the heart of our communities. When they are closed, children, miss out on learning, being with their friends and may be exposed to violence in the home. The pandemic worsened an already unacceptable situation – we must ensure that schools reopen, and they stay open safely.

Click here for the latest COVID information relating to children.

Author: Simon Weedy

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