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WHO works with the health and education sectors to ensure COVID-19 prevention measures are in place as schools reopen in Ethiopia

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Schools in Ethiopia are reopening after nine months of closure following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in the country in March 2020. Since March, the disease has affected over 100 000 people, killed nearly two thousand, and disrupted normal life activities including education. However, in September 2020, the Government lifted the national state of emergency, which was in place since March of the same year, relaxing some preventive measures initially instituted to curb the spread, and paving the way to plan for safe school reopening. 

Melaku Admasu, a father of three, was concerned for the future of his children, including their psychological wellbeing, as they had been staying home following school closures with minimum contact with their peers. “Although I am worried about COVID-19 spreading through schools, I believe the government has done everything possible to protect our children,” he says, echoing the voices of many parents and caretakers. Melaku adds that despite the threats, he is happy that his children are back in school to learn and interact with their friends. 

Ethiopia has more than 39 000 schools, of which 7% are private, as well as several institutions of higher learning which have not been operational for over nine months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘As schools reopen, it is important that strict precautionary measures are put in place to minimize exposure of students, teachers and non-teaching staff to COVID-19 within the school premises and in the community,’ said Dr Boureima Hama Sambo, the WHO Country Representative for Ethiopia. He emphasised that the school reopening is an opportunity to empower young people as agents of change to adopt the recommended positive behaviours to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So far 37 000 schools have reopened enrolling over 20 million students.

WHO is working closely with the Ministries and Bureaus of Health and Education as well as other partners, to support the interventions aimed at making school reopening safe. The WHO Ethiopia country office has supported development of infection prevention and control guidelines and protocols to be used in schools to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus in schools. Different WHO teams – also known as ‘pillars’ in the COVID-19 preparedness and response incident management system – have contributed to the development and implementation of these guidelines, working with their counterparts in the different government sectors. The WHO Ethiopia country office’s Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE), Surveillance and Case Management teams continue to engage with the government to ensure the guidelines are adhered to in the various institutions of learning. Through its regional teams in the ten regions and two city administrations of Ethiopia, the country office is able to support all regions in this process, including with regular assessments and spot checks.

A lot will depend on both teaching and non-teaching staff to ensure that students resume their education in a safe and healthy environment, and make up for the knowledge and skills that may have been lost over the period of closure. “Every morning, as I send my children to school, I am happy to see that sanitary materials are provided, staff checking temperatures at the entrance, and also stopping unauthorized visitors from entering the school compound to minimize the number of people in the school,” Melaku Admasu says. “My children are going to school in shifts, and have strict instructions from their school not to share items and food. If they obey these rules, continue to wear their masks, washing their hands, and not get too close with their friends, they will be safe.” 

In collaboration with partners, key messages on COVID-19 prevention have been developed and distributed to schools to motivate the school community to remain alert. To guarantee a supportive community, parents have also been oriented on their role in the prevention of the spread of the novel corona virus as their children resume school, including ensuring their children have access to face masks, and know how to wear them correctly and consistently. 

The care schools are taking to institute readiness and prevention measures is an important step in protecting the school community, and the wider community, from COVID-19. A strong monitoring mechanism must be instituted to ensure continued compliance by all schools and institutions and avoid future closures due to the spread of the virus in schools and higher institutions of learning.

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