- General

MoH, MoES, WHO and UNICEF visit school to observe safety measures amid Omicron threat

Vice Minister of Education and Sports (MoES) Khanthaly Siriphongphan, WHO Representative to the Lao PDR Ying-Ru Jacqueline Lo, UNICEF Representative to the Lao PDR Pia Rebello Britto, and Director General, Department of Hygiene and Health Promotion, Ministry of Health (MoH) Dr.Phonepaseuth Ounaphom paid a joint visit to Sokpaluang Primary School last Friday, observing the COVID-19 prevention and mitigation measures the school implements as the Omicron COVID-19 variant looms in the country, especially in Vientiane.

MoES, MoH, UNICEF and WHO teams have been briefed by the school principal on the COVID-19 safety measures in place at the school based on national COVID-19 safety measures for schools approved by the National COVID-19 Task Force.

Vice Minister of MoES, Representatives from MoH, UNICEF and WHO representatives also met with teachers and students to learn about their school experiences during the pandemic, as well as what children require to continue their education and reach their full potential amidst the pandemic.

“As the Lao PDR experiences more Omicron cases of COVID-19, making sure that children are learning is a top priority for the Government. We are closely working with schools, the Ministry of Health, and UNICEF and WHO to ensure mitigation measures are followed in schools and learning is not interrupted during this challenging time. It is well established that investing in the school attendance of children don’t only improve children’s learning and wellbeing – it also promises better economic and social situation for the country,” said Mrs Khanthaly Siriphongphan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is approaching to its third year and the threat of the Omicron variant and new COVID variants is increasing around the world, including in the Lao PDR. Children’s learning has been disrupted during the past three years with on-and-off school closures also impacting their access to protection, hygiene, nutrition and socialization that schools provide. Uninterrupted access to in-person schooling remains an urgent priority to avoid a learning catastrophe that would have long-term consequences for children and the country.

“I am aware that some parents are still worried about sending their children back to school during this time. As a mother myself, I understand this concern very well. However, the time spent in school is an absolutely integral part of children’s development and to take that away from them is to deprive them of their ability to realise their potential in life. As in all things we must find a balance and, in this regard, it is between ensuring our children’s safety but also safeguarding their future,” UNICEF Representative Dr Britto said.

“The evidence to date shows that schools are not major spreaders of COVID-19 and throughout these two years, we have learned many lessons about the protective measures that work. UNICEF and the Ministry of Education are working very closely together to ensure schools are safe and all these measures are followed so that children can continue their learning journey,” Dr Britto added.

To support schools in the Lao PDR open safely, UNICEF actively conducted a Safely Back to School campaign since the start of the pandemic and provided personal protective equipment such as masks, hand gels, thermometers, and soaps to schools across the country.

Information, education and communication materials such as banners and posters on COVID-19 prevention measures, including vaccination of teachers and students have been produced and disseminated widely in collaboration with WHO, along with digital advocacy materials.

With thanks to the generous support of partners like the European Union and the Global Partnership for Education, UNICEF has supported MoES set-up the digital teaching and learning platform KhangPanya Lao to support children’s learning during school closures and as a supplementary learning resource inthe classroom.

Two seasons of the early childhood TV series My House with episodes focusing on COVID-19 prevention measures were released so that children can keep learning and be informed about how to protect themselves from the virus.

“If schools with the support of parents and the wider community strictly follow measures like proper mask use, physical distancing, adequate ventilation, personal hygiene practices, regular cleaning and disinfection and observing a ‘stay home when sick’ policy, schools can continue to operate safely and children can continue learning in the classroom,” WHO representative Dr. Lo said.

Prolonged school closures and ongoing interruptions to in-class learning have severe adverse consequences, with significant impact on children’s learning and skills attainment and earning prospects, as well as on their physical and mental health, and that of their families. The global evidence shows increases in anxiety, depression, and self-harm among school-aged children since the start of the pandemic. School closures have also led to reduced physical activity, poor eating habits, and disrupted sleep patterns.

“Maintaining vigilance, promoting vaccination for eligible groups and adherence to all of the other measures, is critical – not only for schools, but also for our broader efforts to suppress COVID-19 transmission in the community,” Dr Lo added.

After meeting with students and teachers, UNICEF and WHO representatives also walked through the school and checked the classrooms to observe teaching-learning and COVID-19 protocols.

As part of the visit, UNICEF and WHO shared with school officials about relevant evidence and guidance from the two UN organizations on safe operation of schools amidst the pandemic and emerging new COVID-19 variants, and good practices on ensuring continuity of learning.

UNICEF and WHO officials shared their observations from the visit with the school principal and MoES and MoH officials.

Source: Lao News Agency