Picture used for illustrative purpose only.
With classrooms closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UN agencies fear that 370 million children worldwide who depend on school meals will suffer devastating nutritional and health consequences and the matter is too serious to be ignored.
School meals are particularly critical for girls, as highlighted by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef).
Some parents in poor countries will send their daughter to school based on the promise of her getting a meal there. This in turn allows girls to escape domestic drudgery or even forced early marriage.
School is also more than a place of learning, as children in poor countries often benefit from health services delivered there, such as vaccinations and de-worming.
For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day. Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty, as stated by David Beasley, WFP Executive Director.
Even as countries grapple with severe disruptions to education caused by COVID-19, it is good that several UN agencies – as part of the Global Education Coalition – have issued new guidelines to help governments make decisions on safely reopening schools for the world’s 1.3 billion students affected by ongoing closures.
Launched in March by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), Unicef, WFP and World Bank, the Coalition works to foster inclusive learning opportunities.
In Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore’s words: “Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school. Unless we prioritise the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”
Poor nutrition and resulting weak immunity leaves children especially vulnerable, while crowded camps can be fertile ground for a rampant contagion such as COVID-19.
In terms of policy, the guidelines recommend having clear directives in place for school opening and closure during public health emergencies. Expanding equitable access for marginalised and out-of-school children is also important, as are efforts to standardise remote learning practices.
They also recommend addressing the impact of COVID-19 on education and investing in education systems to stimulate recovery and resilience.
In the area of safety, they advise ensuring conditions are in place to reduce disease transmission and promote healthy behaviour. This includes access to soap and clean water for safe handwashing and protocols on social distancing.
Practices that compensate for lost instructional time, strengthen teaching methods that work, and build on hybrid learning models are also covered, as are ways to ensure students’ wellness and protection, including through the provision of essential school-based services such as healthcare.
Throughout, the guidelines rightly prioritise the most marginalised. They cover how to expand school opening policies and practices to those who are often excluded – particularly displaced and migrant children – by making critical communications available in relevant languages and accessible formats.
The agencies are correctly insisting that the best interests of children and overall public health considerations – based on an assessment of associated benefits and risks to education, public health and socioeconomic factors – must be central to these decisions.
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