PAHO calls for caution in reopening schools

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The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) is recommending that countries in the region adopt a phased approach to reopening schools for face-to-face learning in the 2021/22 academic year, in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne says this approach should take into consideration the local epidemiological situation, which, she notes, “can change rapidly”.

“Surveillance will be key to ensuring that reopening is done safely and that learning environments remain safe,” she said during PAHO’s COVID-19 digital briefing on Wednesday.

Etienne said prior to reopening schools, countries must ensure institutions can maintain COVID-19 prevention and infection control measures, including physical distancing, hand hygiene, and mask wearing.

Noting that there is COVID-19 community transmission “in almost every country”, the director emphasised that “what we do not want is for schools to be transformed into catalysts for more [of this]”.

She pointed out that closing and reopening schools should be considered a part of the physical-distancing measures that national and parochial authorities are constantly adjusting, depending on the epidemiological situation and the local response capacity.

Etienne maintained that schools “must remain healthy settings for living, learning and working”, while adding that safe and accessible transportation to and from institutions for children and adolescents is also an important consideration.

The PAHO said the region of the Americas continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic, noting that, to date, more than two million people have died and over 82 million cases reported.

Consequently, she said, more than 101 million children across Latin America and the Caribbean have been hit harder by school closures than their peers in any other region.

Etienne noted that PAHO has developed guidelines for reopening schools, “and we are working with our member states so that this can be achieved as safely as possible”.

She contended that reopening schools “is and should be a priority for governments”, among other stakeholders.

“But, ultimately, the safest way to reopen schools rests on countries’ abilities to suppress transmission through vaccination and the implementation of public health measures. This is the only way that we can fully protect children, teachers, parents and the community,” Etienne added.

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