Millions of children have been affected by school closures across Africa.
According to Unesco, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest out-of-school rates in the world. Over one-fifth of children between six and 11 years are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between 12 and 14 years while almost 60 per cent of youth between 15 and 17 years are not in school.
While education is important, schools must remain safe to limit the risk of Covid-19 infections among children and their families when they reopen. It is essential that comprehensive hygiene and sanitation measures to keep children and staff safe and stop the spread of Covid-19 are in place before schools reopen.
One of the biggest challenges in Africa is the lack of universal access to clean water. In arid and semi-arid lands, water may simply be unavailable. While in other regions like crowded urban informal settlements, poor or non-existent sanitation infrastructure has resulted in unsafe drinking water, leading to water borne diseases.
According to a 2019 report by Unicef and World Health Organisation, billions of people around the world suffer from poor access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Some 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and three billion lack basic hand washing facilities.
To protect children from diseases such as Covid-19, we must ensure equitable access to clean water, proper sanitation and hygiene practices. When schools reopen, all Early Childhood Development centres, primary and secondary schools should be provided with adequate regular, and readily accessible clean and safe piped water, taking into consideration the population in every school.
Boreholes should be drilled in schools that are not close to piped water supply systems. Hand washing facilities with constant running water supply and soap should be installed at the entrance of all classrooms, staff rooms, offices, dining halls, libraries, laboratories, and dormitories. Children with special needs should also be put into consideration. School buildings should be cleaned and disinfected frequently, particularly surfaces that are touched by many people such as doorknobs, window handles, toys, tables, teaching and learning aids.
In addition, the toilet-to-pupil ratio in all schools should meet the approved standards for both girls and boys. In shared spaces such as classrooms, libraries, dormitories, laboratories and dining halls, measures should be in place to ensure social distancing between learners.
Practising healthy behaviour such as hand washing is one of the most important steps towards ensuring children live happy and healthy lives. The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects supported by ChildFund in various communities have been a major boost in increasing access to safe drinking water, improving sanitation and hygiene behaviours and managing water resources.
This includes drilling boreholes, pipeline extensions, shallow wells and rainwater harvesting systems, installing hand-washing facilities and teaching children, adolescents, youth, and their families about essential health habits like proper hand washing, which can help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Putting in place these measures in all schools is not cheap. It calls for the allocation of more funds to the education sector. The Ministry of Education should conduct assessments and develop reports on the current hygiene standards in schools and fill the gaps to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Long term, schools should enforce the preconditions needed to cope with such pandemics by ensuring decent hygiene and sanitation standards. We should not wait for a pandemic such as Covid-19 to act. The governments should also seek children’s views when exploring options for opening schools. Children are the primary beneficiaries of education in schools and should, therefore, be consulted on what they need before schools reopen.
This year, the Day of the African Child, celebrated on June 16, presented an opportunity to increase awareness on the ongoing need to fight for the rights of vulnerable children across Africa as we confront the Covid-19 pandemic. It is essential that children access their basic right to education, especially in a continent where so many are out of school.
While doing so, safety is paramount. We must do everything we can to protect our children and ensure that they stay healthy and learn in safe environments.
Mr Koyi is the Africa Regional Director, ChildFund International