Looking at school sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa on Hand Hygiene Day

Hand hygiene is the one certain weapon we have against coronavirus. In high-income countries, as we wrote about this morning, multiple reports are emerging of teachers concerned that schools are going to re-open without sufficient hygiene management in place. In sub-Saharan African countries, however, children may be out of school for a while if hygiene management is the criterion for schools to re-open: only 53% schools have basic sanitation facilities and water.

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Image: GEM Report/Kate Holt

UNESCO just released a resource Paper on Preparing the Reopening of Schools, saying that the critical aspects around school reopening are timing, conditions and processes.  A newFramework for Opening Schools also produced by UNESCO, but also UNICEF, the World Bank and the World Food Programme says countries must “ensure conditions that reduce disease transmission, safeguard essential services and supplies and promote healthy behaviour. This includes access to soap and clean water for safe handwashing, procedures on when staff or students feel unwell, protocols on social distancing and good hygiene practices.” Just how feasible is this?

Many efforts are already underway in the region to meet these and similar pieces of advice on effective hygiene management issued by the WHO, including reported plans to disinfect every school nationwide in Nigeria before they re-open, for instance. Masks as well as hygiene kits are reportedly being distributed to all schools in Senegal prior to opening again in June as well. UNESCO’s Paper on Preparing the Reopening of Schools has further information from current practices about the most critical aspects around school reopening.

In South Africa, meanwhile, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced that re-opening schools from June 1 was dependent on them being able to implement Covid-19 health and safety measures. NATU, the teacher union, however, has very little confidence they will manage this task. Currently only 78% of schools in the country have basic water facilities.

Similar to the way that the arrival of Covid has shone a light on the work still to be done in education as regards technology access, there should be no under-estimating the size of the task in hand to make all learning environments fit Covid-standards. Uganda’s School Health Policy has been a draft for the past 18 years, for instance. There are six countries in sub-Saharan Africa where fewer than one in five schools have handwashing facilities.

Schools are often far more overcrowded in low income settings, making it hard to replicate rules on small class sizes when schools re-open. Many schools have almost 40 children in a class, for instance, in sub-Saharan Africa. If they’re to maintain social distancing, and only have 15 children per class, that would result in every child only going to school two days a week at most.

Complicating the task even more is the fact that, in some countries, as in Uganda, some schools have been used as quarantine centres, something that is not helping cement the idea that they will be properly sanitary when they reunite.

And we should not forget that this is a region with one of the highest numbers of people displaced due to conflict and unrest in the world, many of whom are now living in camps, where rules on sanitation and social distancing are doubly challenged, including in camp schools.

The world over, children often do not have the same heightened awareness of dangers that adults do, meaning that returning to school opens the door to greater transmission risk than during lock-down. Even outside of official school rules and provided facilities, some factors of hygiene are outside of anyone’s control: children may only rarely wash their uniforms, they may share soft drinks as well as their food utensils, such as cups or bowls.

While we must clearly factor in the extent to which disadvantages are being compounded during this crisis of school closures, providing a safe-learning environment is equally critical to their ability to learn when classes start again. It is not a coincidence that a full target in SDG 4 is dedicated to this issue. This is as good a chance as any to remind policy makers of that fact, and highlight the often pitiful school environments children have to learn in. It is critical we ensure schools are safe, and good quality when they open again, especially when, in current circumstances, their health as well as their education depend on it.

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