GENEVA — The coronavirus has caused “the most catastrophic disruption of education in history,” and it is vital for children’s learning and mental health that schools take the necessary measures to open and to continue classroom-based lessons, the World Health Organization’s top European official said on Monday.
“We encourage all countries to keep schools open and urge all schools to put in place measures to minimize the risk of Covid-19 and the spread of different variants,” the official, Hans Kluge, said in a statement released jointly with the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
The statement came as millions of children prepare for the start of a new school year against a backdrop of concern over the spread of the Delta variant.
Children have suffered greatly over the past 20 months, particularly those who were already vulnerable or could not participate in digital learning, Dr. Kluge, the W.H.O.’s European director, said at a news briefing on Monday.
But, he said, “Unlike a year ago, we are in a position to keep them safe,” referring to a range of measures that could minimize the risk of infection.
Dr. Kluge recommended actions such as vaccinating teachers, other school staff and children over the age of 12, and regular testing. He also urged schools to keep classrooms clean, improve ventilation, reduce class sizes where possible and maintain social distancing. Mask wearing would depend on the local risk assessment, he added.
But Dr. Kluge also warned that the Delta variant, together with the “exaggerated easing” of public health measures and increased travel in the summer months had led to a worrying rise in Covid-19 cases, particularly in the Balkans, the Caucasus region and Central Asia.
One reliable projection pointed to 236,000 more deaths in the European region alone by Christmas, he added.
Vaccine skepticism is stalling progress in stabilizing the pandemic, Dr. Kluge said, noting that the numbers of people receiving shots had slowed in recent weeks.
“Vaccination is a right, but it’s also a responsibility,” he said, adding that vaccine skepticism and denial of science “serves no purpose and is good for no one.”
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