We can’t wait until children are vaccinated to reopen schools: UNICEF official

Children have lost out on considerable learning due to school closure, stresses India representative Yasumasa Kimura

The UNICEF is committed to supporting Indian children who missed out on learning in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the body’s India representative Yasumasa Kimura.

Speaking to The Hindu, the official said nearly 247 million children could not go to school for more than a year and approximately 1.5 million schools and 1.4 million educational institutions/anganwadi centres were closed during this period.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic hit children vis-a-vis learning, mental, emotional and social growth with the closure of schools and limited access to classrooms via e-learning?

Children in India are facing a learning crisis and the future of an entire generation is at risk. We are advocating ‘learning recovery and learning loss’ for children in India. Children have been the biggest sufferers during the COVID-19 pandemic as more than 286 million children lost the opportunity of learning.

We have worked very closely with the national and State governments during the pandemic. We have worked with the Ministry of Education to come up with guidelines and protocols for safe reopening of schools for children. The UNICEF has worked towards providing assistance to children in online learning in many States. Our mobile learning centres visited the communities where students did not have mobile phones for online education and provided them support. We worked in Bihar, Odisha, and other States to provide community support to those students with mobile learning.

There is evidence that children are not the cause of COVID-19 infection and they are less likely to become a cluster of infection. It has also been proved that they recover quickly if they get infected. We can’t wait until children are vaccinated to open the schools. They are already losing the learning opportunity. With proper COVID-appropriate behaviour like physical distancing, hand sanitisation and ventilation in the classroom, we can prevent the infection. It is important to bring them back to the classrooms.

What will be the new normal for schools going forward?

Safe reopening of schools is important, as children learn best when they connect with teachers in person. Going to school is central to a child’s learning, development, safety and well-being. But we need to go beyond just reopening schools. Schools need to be safe for children, so they need ensure adequate ventilation, social distancing, hand washing and other safety measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

The new normal for schools will be to function keeping in mind the realities of the pandemic and learning how to manage the challenges. Schools need to work through different scenarios such as an increase in cases or be able to use different approaches to keep school functioning.

Children have lost considerable learning due to school closure. Many have regressed in basic counting and other skills. So, we need to help children regain the lost ground in learning with remedial measures. Assessing children on basic numeracy, reading and writing skills will help. At every step, schools should adapt curriculum to meet children’s needs.

As per the UNICEF’s rapid assessment conducted in October 2020, 76% of parents of children between the ages of 5 and 13 years, and 80% of adolescents between 14 and 18 reported learning less than when physically at school.

Do you think students and teachers will need tailored and sustained support to help them readjust and catch up after the pandemic?

Yes, students and teachers do need support. We need to tailor teaching to help children to readjust to their new environment. We must orient teachers to address learning losses without putting additional stress on children.

Teachers also need to be supported to adopt blended approaches and use technology as part of their teaching. Teachers need help to understand how best to assess children and help them catch up on their learning. Learning recovery programmes of longer duration need to be planned for, to better address children’s learning recovery, especially for those in early primary grades.

How are you supporting parents regarding reported vaccine hesitancy for children?

The UNICEF has been working closely with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare since the launch of the COVID-19 immunisation drive in India, to provide communication support for increased vaccine uptake. Social listening and research activities are conducted regularly to understand vaccine hesitancy and develop evidence-based communication interventions.

As and when children will be made eligible for the COVID-19 immunisation, the UNICEF is prepared to support MoHFW in conducting child vaccine focussed campaigns, by supporting community engagement and promoting messages addressing the concerns of parents and caregivers.

Also, the UNICEF will work with the media in sync with the Ministry, since they are key partners in creating awareness on vaccines and will be useful to reach out to parents and caregivers.

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