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COVID-19 and Schools in Europe and Central Asia

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All schools in Europe and Central Asia should remain open and be made safer from COVID-19 say WHO and UNICEF

Copenhagen and Geneva, 30 August 2021

As millions of children return to school across the European region, where the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant is dominant, the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Europe and Central Asia Regional Office call for schools to stay open and be made safer by adopting measures to minimize transmission of the virus.

These measures include offering teachers and other school staff the COVID-19 vaccine as part of target population groups in national vaccination plans, while ensuring vaccination of vulnerable populations. In addition, children aged 12 years and above who have underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe COVID-19 disease must be vaccinated. Making improvements to the school environment through better classroom ventilation, smaller class sizes where possible, physical distancing and regular testing of children and staff, are other important actions.

“The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history. It is therefore vital that classroom-based learning continues uninterrupted across the WHO European Region. This is of paramount importance for children’s education, mental health and social skills, for schools to help equip our children to be happy and productive members of society,” explains Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“It will be some time before we can put the pandemic behind us but educating children safely in a physical school setting must remain our primary objective, so we don’t rob them of the opportunities they so deserve. We encourage all countries to keep schools open and urge all schools to put in place measures to minimize the risk of COVID-19 and the spread of different variants.”

Scaling up vaccination to protect from the Delta variant

The highly transmissible Delta variant has added an additional layer of concern and complication to this year’s school opening season. The high incidence of COVID-19 in the community makes transmission in schools much more likely. Therefore, we must all commit to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Data clearly show that receiving a full COVID-19 vaccination series significantly reduces the risk of severe disease and death. When called to take the vaccine, people must do so and make sure they complete the full vaccine dose series.

“Vaccination is our best line of defence against the virus, and for the pandemic to end we must rapidly scale up vaccinations fairly in all countries, including supporting vaccine production and sharing of doses, to protect the most vulnerable, everywhere. We must also continue to follow the public health and social measures we know work, including testing, sequencing, tracing, isolation and quarantine,” said Dr Kluge.

Making schools safer is a whole-of-society responsibility

Milena Maric is a high school mathematics teacher from Belgrade, Serbia, who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. She said, “For almost two years, the words ‘COVID-19’ and ‘online schooling’ have marked our lives. When the pandemic started, the school system in Serbia adapted rapidly. But the students lacked continuity, socializing, collaborative work, the sharing of ideas in real time and communication without technology. I know that the only way out of this situation is if we keep respecting measures to prevent the transmission of the virus and if we vaccinate all educators.”

Philippe Cori, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, said: “The pandemic is not over. We all have a part to play to ensure that schools remain open across the region. Children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning. Vaccination and protective measures together will help prevent a return to the darkest days of the pandemic, when people had to endure lockdowns and children had to experience disruption of learning.

“Children have been the silent victims of the pandemic, and the most marginalized have been among the hardest hit. Prior to COVID-19, the region’s most vulnerable children were already those out of school, or in school but not learning at the same level as their classmates.

“A school is so much more than a building; it’s a place of learning, safety and play at the heart of our communities. When they are closed, children miss out on learning and being with their friends, and may be exposed to violence in the home. The pandemic worsened an already unacceptable situation. We must ensure that schools reopen, and they stay open safely.”

Expert recommendations

To help keep schools open and safe, WHO, UNICEF and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have endorsed a set of eight expert recommendations developed by the WHO European Technical Advisory Group for schooling during COVID-19. For use by the 53 Member States of the WHO European Region they are:

  1. Schools to be among the last places to close and first to reopen.
  2. Put in place a testing strategy.
  3. Ensure effective risk-mitigation measures.
  4. Protect children’s mental and social well-being.
  5. Protect the most vulnerable and marginalized children.
  6. Improve the school environment.
  7. Involve children and adolescents in decision-making.
  8. Implement a vaccination strategy designed to keep children in school.
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