Regional directors of the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are pushing for the safe reopening of schools, joining the chorus of calls for the resumption of in-person learning even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
WHO Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai and UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof urged countries to use what is known about COVID-19 to work towards the safe reopening of schools.
"With the COVID-19 pandemic now well into its second year, safely reopening schools has become an urgent priority," Kasai and Hulshof said in a joint opinion piece recently published by Project Syndicate.
Kasai and Hulshof said primary schools, preschools and early childhood development centers are not "high-risk settings" for COVID-19 transmission, especially if safety measures are followed, noting that "children account for a very small proportion of confirmed COVID-19 cases."
"Children of primary-school age and younger are among the least likely cohorts to be infected. And even when they do contract COVID-19, they tend to have milder symptoms than adults," they said.
Both officials, however, cautioned on the reopening of secondary schools, which they said "accounted for a higher number of outbreaks than primary schools."
Partial closures can be an option for secondary schools "but only as a last resort and for limited periods where community transmission is surging," they said.
Kasai and Hulshof said "there is no such thing as zero risk" against the disease, "but the risks are manageable with robust mitigation strategies."
The officials also urged policymakers to consider "local context" in resuming in-person classes, which include factors such as community transmission and a locality's capacity to respond to an increase in COVID-19 infections.
"In some places, health and education services will need additional resources to implement the necessary safety measures," they said.
The officials stressed that school reopening is not dependent on COVID-19 vaccines.
Kasai and Hulshof warned of the "grave" and "far-reaching" consequences of prolonged school closures on students' physical and mental health, skills attainment, and earning prospects.
Both said countries in developing Asia "should prepare for a reduction in the expected gains in reading and math skills for children in both preschool and primary school, as well as a wider achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers" because of the closures.
Last week, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) in the Philippines urged the education and budget departments as well as Congress "to take concrete steps to enable the safe and limited reopening of schools as soon as possible in low-risk areas."
ACT also asked the agencies and lawmakers to "address the multiple gaps in the implementation of the government’s nationwide remote learning program."
"On top of improving the rate of immunization in the country, the Duterte government must give equal attention to putting in place ample measures that will allow limited face-to-face classes in areas with little to no COVID-19 cases," it said.
The Department of Education (DepEd) is pushing for the gradual resumption of in-person classes, awaiting only for President Rodrigo Duterte's go signal.
The agency planned to hold a dry run of limited face-to-face classes in select areas earlier this year but Duterte canceled this over fears of more contagious coronavirus variants.
Both the DepEd and the Commission on Higher Education have urged education workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which they believe will advance the chances of safely returning to schools.
The government has allowed select colleges and universities with medical and allied health programs to hold limited in-person classes to ensure that the country would not run out of health workers.