Re-opening Schools balancing Health and Education: Keeping children safe, healthy and learning

We welcome the recent announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministry of Education and Sports to start the new school year across the Lao PDR on 6 September, and call for keeping schools open for in-person learning unless the epidemiological situation does not warrant it.

While the COVID-19 virus continues to proliferate and emerging data indicate children are also getting infected, decisions to close down educational services should take into account health considerations with educational needs in the immediate term as well as the potential instructional, developmental, educational, and economic consequences of these shutdowns.

Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to commend the Government of the Lao PDR, particularly the Ministry of Education and Sports, on this latest decision that would allow nearly two million students from pre-primary to higher education to return to in-person schooling in areas with no new cases of community spread in recent 14 days (Red Zone), and use other learning options in areas where schools are temporarily closed.

Ensuring that schools reopen safely ultimately contributes to the human resource development of the country which is a pillar of the 9thNational Socio-economic Development Plan (NSEDP) and is the right step towards securing the future of the next generation. It is also critical to continue the efforts made to reduce gender inequalities, as the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, impacted their own development and economic status.

We are now well into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused widespread disruption to the lives of families across the Lao PDR, including children. The gains that we have collectively made in children’s well-being are under threat due to disruptions to face-to-face schooling caused by COVID-19.

It is clear that if we are to safeguard the future of every child in the Lao PDR, schools must reopen safely with COVID-19 prevention and protection strategies in place and closing schools must be a temporary measure of last resort. Moreover, even before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, there was a need to address and improve the learning performance of Lao students.

When schools are closed, the majority of children are not learning, which could worsen the already poor learning outcomes of students.

In order to optimize the health, protection and wellbeing of children to create a safe school environment, we are proposing a layered approach. The first layer of protection to ensuring safe reopening of schools is the vaccination for teachers, and going forward as soon as possible, for children in the 12 to 18 years age (as WHO has approved COVID-19 vaccines for this age group).

The second layer of protection to keep children and teachers safe are the use of masks and social distancing at all times in schools, with classrooms having a good airflow and ventilation. Frequent hand washing with soap or use of hand sanitizers, and frequent cleaning of shared surfaces must be observed.

Keeping students and teachers in small groups; staggering start, break, bathroom, meals and school end times are also recommended prevention measures, as well as information sharing mechanisms with parents, students and teachers. Remote, hybrid learning options for students with capacity development support for teachers should be explored to ensure some type of continuity of learning, including use of digital technologies.

With the support of UN agencies and development partners, supplies such as digital thermometers, hand sanitisers, water connection and group handwashing facilities, soaps, and face masks are being provided to schools.

The Ministry of Education and Sports has put in place safety protocols for schools based on global WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF and WFP guidelines.

Moreover, the Lao PDR’s decision to prioritize the vaccination of teachers also provide additional protection and will help to prevent community transmission.

Schools are more than just buildings where children learn. They are the safe havens that are crucial to children’s development, safety and well-being. The benefits of being in school far outweighs the risks and potential consequences when children miss out on in-person learning: from learning loss, mental distress, risk to exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills. While school reopening is indeed a key first step, we also need to ensure that students, especially the most vulnerable will be able to reconnect with their learning trajectories after long school closures, catching-up on lost learning time.

We congratulate the Ministry of Education and Sports and the provincial and district education authorities on their efforts to ensure on-time safe school reopening for the start of the new school year, and provision of other learning options where schools are temporarily closed. The UN remains committed to working with the Government of the Lao PDR to ensure that schools throughout the country can stay open with relevant COVID-19 prevention measures in place and support the most vulnerable return to and remain in school.

Source: Lao News Agency