UNICEF bats for continued children’s schooling in BARMM amid COVID-19

By Ali G. Macabalang

UNICEF-Mindanao Field Office Chief Andrew Morris, culled from online archive.

COTABATO CITY

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has urged authorities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to exert all possible remedies for constituent-children to continue schooling amid the COVID-19 pandemic, citing more adverse consequence of stopping school studies in the negative indices of the infant region.

Andrew Morris, chief of UNICEF’s Mindanao Field Office, delivered the pointblank call in a webinar sponsored by his agency and the BARMM’s education ministry on Wednesday.

Morris is one of country representatives of United Nations agencies and foreign-donor countries that have responded with corresponding assistance meant to save households, especially school children, in BARMM from the COVID-19 adverse impacts in the early advent of the pandemic in South East Asia.

At Wednesday’s webinar, which was joined by Regional Education Minister Mohagher Iqbal, Morris pointed out that “schools are not a main driver of community transmission, and children are more likely to get the virus outside of their school settings.”

His contention against closing of schools due to fear for in the global virus appeared very appropriate in the current reality that BARMM, according to government statistics, is one of three regions in the country having highest rates in illiteracy and poverty incidence.   

Morris acknowledged the facts that alternative online modules for school children during the pandemic are equally handicapped by absence of internet connections, laptops and tablets in most of 118 municipalities, five provinces, and 2,590 barangays (villages) in the autonomous region.

Minister Iqbal, for his part, said the Bangsamoro government, particularly his ministry, has being “doing its best” to allow constituent-children’s continued schooling by all means, admitting though the absence of specific budget for preventive measures against the pandemic.

Morris sent to various media entities covering BARMM governance an e-copy of his statement concerning his call, titled “For Every Child: Safe Return to School.”

Below is the full text of Mr. Morris’ statement:

For Every Child: Safe Return to School

By Andrew Morris, Chief of Mindanao Field Office, UNICEF

Effects of pandemic on education According to a World Bank household survey analysis (World Bank) on the Impacts of COVID-19 on HH in the Philippines: • Only 20% of children enrolled before COVID-19 were able to continue to be engaged in learning activities during community quarantine. • This was even lower among households in the bottom quintile (only 11%). • 81% of households will send back their children to schools when they reopen.

In BARMM, all schools closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. A total of 890,985 enrolled children were forced to end schooling earlier than the regular school year due to the imposed lockdown.

The Technical and Vocation Education and Training (TVET) also shut down its 114 providers and 42 assessment centers around the region, affecting 2,500 enrollees. Higher Education likewise shifted from face-to-face learning to flexible learning modalities impacting its population.

Considering the lack of connectivity to the internet and mobile network in most areas in BARMM as well as the nearly universal lack of laptops and tablets in the area, online learning modality introduced in other regions in the Philippines is not a feasible option for child learners in BARMM.

Furthermore, there is a growing concern on the sustainability of the home-based learning modality since not all the families can provide the necessary and appropriate parental guidance and support to their children. BARMM is the Philippines’ poorest region (65 percent children living in poverty) where both parents need to work and some have not completed primary education themselves.

What is UNICEF position on school closures?

Our message is clear: Closing schools must be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered. Children cannot afford another year of school disruption. Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, many countries including the Philippines, have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year.

The cost of closing schools – which at the peak of pandemic lockdowns affected 90 per cent of students worldwide and left more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education – has been devastating:

 • The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million, to a level we have not seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome.

• Children’s ability to read, write and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century economy have diminished.

• Their health, development, safety and well-being are at risk. The most vulnerable among them will bear the heaviest brunt.

• Without school meals, children are left hungry and their nutrition is worsening. Without daily interactions with their peers and a reduction in mobility, they are losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress.

• Without the safety net that school often provides, they are more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour.

Can schools spread COVID-19?

Schools are not a main driver of community transmission, and children are more likely to get the virus outside of school settings. Evidence shows that although children can transmit the virus to each other and to older age groups, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them.

What can be done to enable children to return to school safely?

For schools that are able to open, UNICEF is working to make sure they can do so safely. With our partners, we’ve released a framework for re-opening schools. Together, we’re supporting governments to adopt flexible approaches, provide sufficient resources for teachers to be adequately protected and supported, and make sure that learning remains safe for all students.

Despite the risks, why are you calling for schools to remain open?

Prioritizing reopening schools and providing much-needed catch-up classes are critical to ending the education emergency caused by the pandemic-related lockdowns.

Schools are not the main drivers of the pandemic. At the community-level where there are either no cases (or) sporadic cases or cluster transmissions, schools should remain open and implement COVID-19 prevention and control measures.

Closing schools should be the last option but this could be considered in areas where there are cluster cases.

However, where there is wider scale community transmission it is likely that broad public health and social measures including school closure will be in place in these areas.

Where this happens, these measures should be seen as temporary and plans to deliver education to all children remotely must be in place. AGM 

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