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As children go back to schools and ECCD centres, UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks highlights some important steps for their safe return

UNICEF joins the nation in welcoming students and teachers back to school. By now, at least 609 schools have reopened and more, including ECCD, centres are preparing to reopen over the coming months. This is great news for the children, their parents and teachers as well as the country. But the decision to reopen schools is as challenging as it is to close them. Education systems around the world are grappling with the complexities of when and how to reopen schools following widespread closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are long-term effects of school closure which will need to be overcome. Research has shown children could lose more than a year’s worth of learning even from a three-month school closure. For the poorest children, the effect of even a month out of school can last a lifetime. A paper published by the OECD reported that worldwide school closures in early 2020 led to losses in learning that will not easily be recovered even if schools quickly return to their prior performance levels.1 Existing research suggests that students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect about three percent lower income over their entire lifetimes. For nations, such losses might yield an average of 1.5 percent lower annual GDP for the remainder of this century.

Given the potentially irreversible impacts school closure can have on the lives of children, UNICEF commends the Government’s decision to reopen schools as planned and the efforts being made to make schools the safest place for children even during difficult circumstances. 

An immediate positive impact that we should see over the next few months will be the resumption of school-based learning for more than 30,000 children who could not access lessons online. The initiatives taken by the Ministry of Education to provide online lessons is also a breakthrough opportunity to provide inclusive digital teaching and learning solutions. The power of technology can be harnessed to provide children and young people with a range of skills they will need in a digital age whilst also providing a fallback position in case of further school closures. It is important though to highlight that a recent study in 191 countries found no causal relationship between school closure dates and the reported cases of COVID-19 infection in the population.2 Future nationwide school closures should be avoided, and localized closures should only be used as a last resort. We have seen evidence in Bhutan and elsewhere that schools can be kept open and kept safe.

UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, WFP and UNHCR have developed a Framework for reopening schools with practical advice covering areas such as policy reform, financing requirements, safe operations and reaching the most marginalized children, who are the most likely to drop out of school altogether.3  

Safe Operations

Bhutan’s response has been impressive in mandating all learning institutions to install safety measures. The Ministry of Education’s leadership in ensuring hand hygiene in schools has resulted in schools recording a 77 per cent increase in handwashing tap points with soaps in 2020. 

Multiple measures can also be used to maintain physical distance. These include moving classes outdoors, building additional classrooms, staggering start/end times and blending distance and in-person learning. The measures taken would allay the fears parents and caregivers might have on sending children back to schools.

Focus on learning 

Proactive planning and clear protocols for re-closings as a last resort, coupled with flexibility in local decision-making can help limit local outbreaks as well as disruptions to teaching-learning processes. 

The Education Ministry’s directives to support learning recovery will help prepare children to focus on learning. These exercises would also be critical in identifying learning gaps, recognize the challenges children may have faced during their time at home, and identify and follow-up those students who didn’t return to school or are at risk of dropping out. 

Implementing a flexible, blended learning model would help both teachers and students adapt to the new normal schooling, hone their digital skills and ensure smooth transition back to the virtual learning space should their school close again. It is heartening to learn that a New Normal Curriculum Framework has been developed. The Framework could integrate education on disasters and emergencies to build resilience among children. It is vital to equip teachers to deliver the new curriculum. 

UNICEF strongly recommends to support teachers and ECCD facilitators to implement remediation and manage students’ new psychosocial needs. Even amid the excitement of starting or returning to school, socialize, play and learn, children and young people may feel anxious and overwhelmed by the changes happening around them. The orientation of students in schools with counsellors is a good step to support the psychosocial needs of children. We are hopeful that similar programmes would be held to reach children in schools currently without counsellors. 

As important is the wellbeing of our teachers and facilitators. School administrators should check in regularly with teachers and staff and support their mental health and psychosocial needs. 

Wellbeing and protection 

Early and regular communication and support to teachers, parents, and students can help address concerns and ensure a safe return to school. Safe operations of schools and school feeding can help in persuading parents and caregivers to bring children back to school.

The orientation of teachers on helping children adjust to being back to school by counsellors is a good start. But there is more to be done. Teachers and staff responsible for children’s welfare should be equipped with the skills and knowledge to: address stereotypes and discrimination related to COVID-19; identify behavioural and cognitive changes; provide learning support and offer referrals to child protection services.

Reaching the most marginalized 

Special attention and resources should be targeted to schools and communities hit hardest by the impacts of the pandemic. Media reports already indicate a high number of dropouts and these are often the most vulnerable children. UNICEF recommends that the Education Management Information System be activated early to identify children not returning to school and to seek the support of parents and communities to get them back to school. 

ECCDs

The reopening of Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centres can provide children with much-needed social and emotional support, learning opportunities and a reliable nurturing environment to thrive and develop while in the centres. Though there will be challenges, young children are highly resilient and adaptive. Just as in school settings, all staff of ECCDs will require training to implement non-negotiable hygiene and safety practices in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s recommendations.

Reimagine the future for every child

Acting on innovations and lessons learned during COVID-19 can help improve both access and quality, thus reimagining education systems to ensure all children everywhere have opportunities to learn. 

UNICEF applauds the efforts Bhutan’s teachers and facilitators made to ensure learning continuity of children. Bhutan’s children and young people demonstrated incredible resilience, many persevering through an unforgettable year of being physically separated from their teachers, schools and school friends.

This year, Bhutan and the UN celebrate 50 years of partnership and UNICEF, its 75th global anniversary. These milestones remind us that close and collaborative partnerships are required more than ever to protect a generation of children from the long-term consequences of the global pandemic.

UNICEF75 is a call to reimagine the future for every child. 

1 https://bit.ly/3qzLIYb

2. https://www.unicef.org/reimagine/education

3. https://education.org/facts-and-insights#f09a6e46-8c5f-4d01-8297-d2a3f6c8f873 

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