UNICEF and WHO pushes for safe re-opening of schools

WHO Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai

Joining the chorus of calls for the resumption of in-person learning even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues…
Regional directors of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are pushing for the safe re-opening of schools.

WHO Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai and UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof urged countries to use what is known about COVID-19 to work towards the safe schools’ re-opening.

In a joint opinion piece recently published by Project Syndicate, Kasai and Hulshof both said that with the COVID-19 pandemic now well into its second year, safely re-opening schools has now become an urgent priority.

Primary schools, pre-schools and early childhood development centers are not “high-risk settings” for COVID-19 transmission, especially if safety measures are followed, noting that “children account for a very small proportion of confirmed COVID-19 cases”, Kasai and Hulshof said.

They also said that children of primary-school age and younger are among the least likely cohorts to be infected and even when they do contract COVID-19, they tend to have milder symptoms than adults.

The two officials stressed that school re-opening is not dependent on COVID-19 vaccines. However, both officials cautioned on the re-opening of secondary schools, which they said are accounted for a higher number of outbreaks than primary schools.

Kasai and Hulshof emphasized that there is no such thing as zero risk against the disease, but the risks are manageable with robust mitigation strategies.

Partial closures can be an option for secondary schools “but only as a last resort and for limited periods where community transmission is surging,” they said.

The two officials also urged policymakers to consider “local context” in resuming in-person classes, which include factors such as community transmission and a locality’s capacity to respond to an increase in infections caused by COVID-19.