Weighing up the risks: School closure and reopening under COVID-19
School closure means less learning and increased protection risks, especially for children and youth in crisis contexts
Imagine you’re a child, your school has closed, you’re stuck at home, you can’t see your friends, you can’t learn, you’re scared and worried about your future.
Now imagine that school is the place where you receive your main meal of the day, the place where you get support in dealing with traumas you’ve experienced, the place you feel safe.
It’s no longer open for you.
This is the reality for many children and young people around the world now. Governments trying to stop the spread of the COVID-19 global pandemic have ordered an unprecedented level of school closures, which at their height affected up to 90% of all learners globally. Whilst in some cases these closures may have been necessary, the decision did not always take into account the impact on the wider wellbeing of children and young people.
We know that education is one of the main drivers against inequality, a way to foster peace, to catalyze regeneration, and to bring hope to the futures of many vulnerable children and young people around the world. Education can also provide a protective environment, psychosocial support, socialisation, school feeding, and referrals into other specialised child-protection and health services - all factors that are key to healthy and holistic development.
Many children and young people are suffering greatly from school closures, missing out on education and being exposed to other child protection risks such as child labour, early marriage, separation from family, and other forms of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence.
The most vulnerable in society are likely to be the worst affected. If you were a refugee child before the pandemic you were more than twice as likely than a non-refugee to be out of school. COVID-19 is only making this worse. Many of those now affected by school closures in poorer countries and crisis-contexts may never go back to school. UNHCR & Malala Fund estimate that half of all refugee girls will not return when classrooms reopen. Recent research from Christian Aid also notes that: “Experience from the west African Ebola epidemic shows school closures led to higher rates of permanent dropout for girls, and to a rise in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies and early marriage.” The life chances of a whole generation are at risk of being devastated.
Preventing transmission of COVID-19 is necessary to contain it, but in some high density environments- refugee camps, informal settlements, low resource neighbourhoods - social distancing may not be practical and closing schools may leave children at equal or greater risk of infection.
The analysis of all the risks and impacts across health, education, and child protection needs to be contextually specific, down to school-area, undertaken swiftly and updated regularly to ensure children and young people are not further disadvantaged by COVID-19.
The Alliance and INEE have come together to develop a policy paper to support decision-makers with these difficult decisions. In Weighing up the risks: School closure and reopening under COVID-19 — When, Why, and What Impacts? we call on governments to undertake a holistic analysis of the impact on the well-being of children and young people, with a focus on the impact on educational outcomes and the child protection risks that are engendered by school closures. These need to be balanced with an analysis of any impact on COVID-19 transmission caused by school closure and reopening. In many circumstances, full or partial school closures may be the correct decision. In other contexts, however, the ‘best interests of the child [and youth]’ may require the safe reopening schools.
Reopening school is not an easy decision to make, and saving lives needs to be a priority, but we also need to give vulnerable children the protection they deserve, as well as hope and opportunity for a better future through safe, inclusive and equitable quality education.
The Alliance and INEE are calling on their members to disseminate this paper to key decision makers in the countries they’re working in, and to work with them to do the analysis needed to make informed, child-centred decisions that uphold children’s right to education and protection.
For further information please contact Mark Chapple - Technical Focal Point, Collaboration Between Child Protection & Education in Emergencies: The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action and the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies