UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks shares his views

Firstly, let me congratulate the Ministry of Education’s response to COVID-19. The rapid delivery of lessons on television and radio, through online learning, as well as via the mass distribution of Self-Instructional Materials or “SIM” have helped many children to continue learning despite schools being closed. UNICEF is also impressed with the Prioritized Curriculum developed by the Royal Education Council to facilitate students out of school to continue learning and progress to higher grades. Teachers, School Counsellors, and ECCD facilitators across Bhutan have gone beyond the call of duty, adapting to new teaching modalities and using innovative ways to ensure that their students continue to learn and receive support.

The Ministry of Education and UNICEF recognize, however, that school closures carry high social and economic costs that are particularly severe for the most vulnerable. These include:

· Interrupted learning: Schooling provides essential learning but when schools are closed, children and youth are deprived of opportunities for growth and development. The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school.

· Poor nutrition: Many children and youth rely on meals provided at schools for healthy nutrition. When schools close, children’s nutrition is compromised. Again, the nutritional status of the most vulnerable is impacted the most.

· Parents unprepared for home schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the learning of children at home, especially younger children, but can struggle with this task. It is particularly difficult for families where both parents have to work. Working single parents struggle with home-based learning even more.

·  Gaps in childcare: When schools close, working parents may often leave children alone or with others which can be risky. With offices re-opening, many working parents of young children will face immense pressure if ECCD centres and primary schools remain shut, mainly because younger children require more care. This stress is especially felt by single parents and parents who are unable to afford home-based childcare.

· Increased exposure to violence and exploitation: When schools close, early marriages increase, sexual exploitation and abuse of girls and young women rises, teenage pregnancies become more common, and child labour rises. There is clear evidence of an increase in the number of domestic abuse cases in Bhutan over the last four months.

· Social isolation: Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on time with friends that is essential to social development. Their mental health can be diminished. Children with deafness in particular can feel very isolated in their communities due to communication barriers with their parents and siblings who cannot use Bhutan Sign Language as compared to their teachers and classmates.

· Missing out on the ‘window of opportunity’: Decades of research show that a child’s brain develops most rapidly during their earliest years. Investment through provision of access to learning and stimulation in these early years yields high returns not just from an economic perspective but also from a human development perspective since the foundation for life-long successes in health, development, learning, and earning potential is laid during this period. With ECCD centres and primary schools closed, this critical window of investment is being missed with high costs for society. Once missed, this window of opportunity for early brain development can never be recovered.

· Parents might prioritise learning of some children over others: When schools close, some parents, particularly in poorer households, may prioritise the learning of older children over younger ones. For example, parents without a television or with only one mobile phone may be forced to focus only on those children who have high-stake examinations.


What is UNICEF’s  position?

Strict measures such as school closures were taken to help contain the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the transmission curve. UNICEF did not recommend closing schools. School closure was a precautionary measure taken by many governments around the world.

We now know more than we did when the COVID-19 pandemic started. We have learned that children and schools are not the main drivers of COVID-19. There is no scientific correlation between the rate of COVID-19 transmission and whether schools are open or closed. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence of the negative impacts of school closure on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning. The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return and less likely to stay in school even if they return because of the impact on their ability to learn as a result of school disruptions. For the most marginalised children, missing out on school – even if only for a couple of weeks – can lead to negative outcomes that last a lifetime.

UNICEF is therefore calling for all schools, including ECCD centres, to be among the first services to re-open once appropriate safety measures are put into place such as access to handwashing with soap – not only for the sake of children, but also for the sake of the economy.

The reopening of schools in Bhutan for students of classes X and XII is a good start. UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education on the re-opening of schools and helping to put in place the required safety measures. As more classes hopefully restart, we will need to focus on getting the most vulnerable into the classroom so that they can resume, or in some cases, start their education. We must ensure every child is included and learns, every child has access to school-based health, hygiene and nutrition services, and every child is connected to the internet. We also need to develop additional, innovative programmes to accelerate learning so that children can catch up on the classroom time they have missed. This global disruption can be a catalyst for a once-in-a-lifetime transformation in our schools, so that every child learns the skills they need to succeed in school, work, and life.

UNICEF strongly recommends that before opening each school, consultations with the local communities be conducted through a welcome-back-to-school campaign to reach every family and every child. Schools should be checked to ensure that all school safety measures are in place before they re-open.

Preparation of teachers on how to bring children back to learning should also be done as agreed in the Education in Emergency COVID-19 Response Plan. The education ministry has developed the national guideline and checklists for re-opening schools through a consultative process with multiple stakeholders including UNICEF, WFP and CSOs. Bhutan’s guideline is based on the Global Framework for Re-opening of Schools developed by UNICEF, along with UNESCO, the World Bank, WFP, and UNHCR. A few key critical components are availability of WASH facilities, physical distancing protocols, and innovative strategies such as shift systems, and staggering starting and closing times of school days, among others.


What UNICEF  recommends?

To Government: UNICEF understands that countries are having to make difficult decisions to balance the demands of responding directly to COVID-19, while also ensuring that people continue to get essential health and other services. We are calling on governments to ensure that essential services for children stay open or re-open to make sure that children have access to health care, immunization, protection and learning.

To parents: It is critical for parents of children of all ages to understand that learning is a progressive process with specific developmental milestones for children based on their age and learning abilities. Therefore, it is important that children are meaningfully engaged as much as possible. While the government has taken many commendable actions to ensure that children continue learning despite school closures and has provided lessons via television, radio, and mobile phone applications, it is also important to limit screen time and ensure that some face-to-face, outdoor, and physical interactions become a part of the daily learning process. It is also important that with increased time spent learning online, children are protected from the dangers of the internet. Have an honest dialogue with your children about who they communicate with online and how. The prolonged time spent together as a result of school closures can be used to teach children valuable lessons on life through everyday household chores, family time, and interactive conversations. It is important to maintain daily routines with children, preferably in consultation with children, for better time management and understanding.


To teachers and ECCD facilitators: While we worry about children’s learning due to school closures, teachers and ECCD facilitators are also facing immense disruptions and stress. Teachers and facilitators will need to remain flexible and manage expectations since children’s progress will vary greatly depending on their learning ability, support received at home, and access to distance learning resources. In addition, teachers and facilitators should consider the psychosocial support that children may require due to stress endured during school closures. Likewise, teachers and facilitators should not forget about their own well-being.