Global evidence continues to show that schools do not drive the spread of COVID-19 in the community and the virus does not pose a high risk to children. Evidence also indicates that teachers are at lower risk of infection in school settings, compared to the general adult population.
Despite some brief periods of opening, physical operation of schools in Sri Lanka has been severely limited since initial closures in March 2020, in a swift move by the government to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government efforts to mitigate learning losses through remote learning methods during the closures have helped children to not completely miss out on their education. However, this has been limited by many factors, including varying levels of access to internet connection, laptops, mobile phones, TV, radio and the broader infrastructure that supports these systems, as well as capacity of teachers, education administrations and parents to effectively engage.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in widening inequalities and learning losses that threaten to reverse and, in the worst case, completely erase the gains made over the past decades. The reopening of schools provides an opportunity to limit a further widening of inequalities and mitigate the learning losses but only if concerted efforts are made to strengthen systems for recovery and resilience of the education sector. These include:
• Prioritizing the most vulnerable and those whose education is most affected by COVID-19, including younger students who gained the minimum in-school experience and children with special needs to ensure continuous access to and participation in learning for all children. No child must be left behind.
• Financing to address the impact of COVID-19 on education. Revamping the sector will require crucial investments, including on the infrastructure required for safe reopening and operation of schools as well as in training teachers on skills required to help them respond to the different learning needs of children, including mental health.
• Concerted efforts by Education authorities, school administrations and parents to implement measures to ensure schools remain a safe environment for learning. This includes strict implementation of and adherence to guidelines on safe reopening and operation. These guidelines need to take into consideration different local and school-level contexts.
The best interest of the child should always be the primary principle when making decisions on children, including on education as the pandemic evolves. School closures should only be considered as a last resort when there are no other alternatives.
The Government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated a good example in the region in reopening schools in 2020 and can build on that experience to quickly return and keep all learners in the classrooms.
UNICEF and its partners remain committed to continue providing technical support to Sri Lanka’s commendable efforts in responding to the pandemic and the safe reopening and operation of schools.