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Governments have been urged to ensure that schools have access to handwashing facilities, before making any attempts for reopening educational institutions.

The call, by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, follows a report indicating that nearly 820 million children worldwide do not have basic handwashing facilities at school, putting them at increased risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases.

The study, by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, found that last year, 43 per cent of schools globally lacked access to basic handwashing with soap and water: a key condition for schools to be able to operate safely in the midst of the pandemic.

Of the roughly 818 million children worldwide who lack basic handwashing facilities at school, more than one third are in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 60 countries at highest risk of health and humanitarian crises due to the virus, three-quarters of children lacked the basic ability to wash their hands at school at the start of the outbreak, while half lacked basic water service.

Dr Tedros said that this must be a major focus of government strategies for the safe reopening and operation of schools during the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. “Access to water, sanitation and hygiene services are essential for effective infection prevention and control in all settings, including schools”, he said.

The report stressed that governments seeking to control coronavirus spread must balance the need for implementing public health measures against the social and economic impacts of lockdown measures. The partners said evidence of the negative impacts of prolonged school closures on children has been well documented.

“Global school closures since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have presented an unprecedented challenge to children’s education and wellbeing”, said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We must prioritize children’s learning. This means making sure that schools are safe to reopen – including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water and safe sanitation.”

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