The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is encouraging member countries to do everything possible to safely reopen schools for the 2021/22 academic year, against the background of the pervasive coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, said while there is no “zero-risk” scenario in relation to COVID-19, national and local authorities should decide the appropriate time to open or close schools, where necessary.
This decision, she pointed out, is contingent on the local epidemiological situation and the capacity to respond.
Speaking during PAHO’s COVID-19 digital briefing on Wednesday (September 15), Dr. Etienne said the pandemic has triggered the worst educational crisis ever recorded in the Americas.
“The broad impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents cannot be ignored. Our kids have missed more school days than children in any other region,” she noted.
Dr. Etienne said despite efforts to leverage virtual classrooms, “these can never substitute in-person schooling, because schools are not only places where children get learning”.
“They are also places where children socialise and can receive mental health support or a nutritious meal,” she added.
The Director underscored that each day youngsters go without in-person schooling poses a greater likelihood of their dropping out and never returning to school.
She pointed out that “for some of the most vulnerable children – particularly for our girls – this can have lasting consequences”.
Dr. Etienne said while COVID-19 vaccines are yet to be approved for children in most countries, practising physical distancing, frequent handwashing, wearing masks in public, and avoiding crowded spaces can help safeguard children against the virus.
“That is why we must protect children by giving them and their caregivers the support that they need to maintain the public health measures that have been proven effective against this virus,” she emphasised.
Additionally, she recommended that children and adolescents get tested if they develop symptoms or suspect they are sick, to avoid infecting others.
“Adults also play a role in keeping [children] safe by themselves practising these public health measures and getting vaccinated when it’s their turn,” the Director further stated.
Dr. Etienne said it is also recommended that teachers and school staff be prioritised for vaccination as doses become available.
This, she emphasised, is imperative, as adults are “more likely” to transmit the virus into the classroom, which could potentially result in students contracting the disease.
Dr. Etienne said it is important that children and teens understand the potential risk of their getting sick and their role in preventing COVID-19 transmission.
In this regard, she underscored the need for member countries to develop communication campaigns specifically targeting children and adolescents that bring their needs and the resources available to them in focus.