WHO, partners: Safe school reopening top priority

Mask-wearing student at laptop in library
Mask-wearing student at laptop in library

ILO Asia-Pacific / iStock

Some of the world's top health and education officials today warned that delays in safely reopening schools will cause lasting damage and that many communities heading into winter months will face tough choices needed to keep schools open.

In other developments, COVID-19 levels are rising to worrying levels in several Middle Eastern countries. The global total today climbed to 29,398,712 cases, and 930,910 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Opening schools and keeping them open

At a World Health Organization (WHO) media briefing today, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that half of the world's school-age population still hasn't resumed school. He added that longer lapses increase the chance of lasting damage and that ongoing closures pose a risk that 11 million girls will never return to school.

Henrietta Fore, MPA, executive director of UNICEF, said that at the height of the pandemic, 1.6 billion kids in 192 countries were sent home from school, and 9 months later, 872 million in 51 countries still haven't been able to return to their classrooms, and for 463 million of them, there is no remote learning owing to a lack of Internet access, computers, or mobile devices.

She also said a new survey of 158 countries revealed that 1 in 4 haven't set a date for school reopening. Fore emphasized today that schools provide a supportive environment for learning and health, and closing schools increases exposure to physical and emotional violence.

The groups today urged governments to prioritize the reopening of schools, once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Yesterday the groups updated their guidance on school-related COVID-19 measures.

WHO officials have emphasized that schools are part of communities and aren't immune from playing a role in community spread. At today's briefing, Mike Ryan, MD, who directs the WHO's health emergencies program, said as people come in more contact in the months ahead, countries face a key moment in considering schools as they weigh their values.

He said communities will need to find ways to curb the spread of the virus in adults to protect vulnerable populations and to keep schools open, which might mean, for example, closing nightclubs when community illness levels are spiking.

"There's a time for decision making as winter approaches, and there are no right answers," he said. "Conversations need to be had in many countries There are no magic bullets, and we can't be looking for unicorns."

He praised the work teachers, administrators, and parent groups are doing to open schools and called them heroes. "They're doing everything they can, and governments and communities need to support them."

Worrying rise in Middle East

In other developments, the director of the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean regional office said today that a significant rise activity in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, is extremely worrying.

Ahmed Al-Mandhari, MD, PhD, said though flare-ups are expected as restrictions are eased, governments need to go beyond just testing sick people who seek care at clinics and hospitals. "Millions of people are still at risk. Social measures such as mask use, physical distancing, and proper hygiene measures must be strictly followed. I cannot stress this enough," he said.

Al-Mandhari also warned that the impact on health systems due to fear of seeking healthcare, shortages of personal protective equipment, and supply shortages from entry point closures, is another area of concern.

In related developments, in Morocco, health workers are protesting inadequate staffing and poorly equipped hospitals. Also, Jordan—experiencing a spike in cases—just announced that it is closing schools for 2 weeks and temporarily shuttering restaurants, markets, and churches. And just days ahead of its second national lockdown, Israel yesterday reported a daily record high of 4,973 cases.

Asia developments

A Chinese city near the Myanmar border ordered mass testing and quarantine for downtown residents after two imported COVID-19 cases were detected in people coming from Myanmar, Reuters reported. The city of Ruili—home to about 200,000 people—is in Yunnan province in southwestern China. Officials have also shuttered businesses and ordered vehicles off the streets. So far, no local cases have been detected.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong just wrapped up a 2-week mass testing effort, which identified 38 new cases among 1.78 million people who were tested at a cost of $68 million. The region recently battled a third wave of cases and today reported no new local cases for the first time since Jul 7.

In Japan, which is battling a second wave of activity, cases are declining as well, with 270 new cases reported yesterday, the lowest daily total since Jul 13.

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