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Going back to school in the middle of a pandemic

Indonesia shows how it can be done

To reopen – and stay open – schools around the world must translate strict hygiene standards into everyday practice. Indonesia is showing how simple checklists can help school communities do this. Other countries, like Malawi, are adopting the same approach, adapting it to their contexts. 

Septya Ramadine Ashya, a student at Siswa school in Indonesia, is delighted that her school has finally reopened after months of closures due to COVID-19. She, like millions of pupils from Bandung to Blantyre and Berlin, has suffered from catastrophic disruptions to her education over the past two years.   

Over 60 million students in Indonesia were affected by nationwide school closures in March 2020. Not only did they lose out on learning, but they also struggled – like children all around the world –with the mental and emotional consequences of social isolation. A recent UNICEF report describes the severe impact the pandemic has had on Indonesia’s children, including on their learning, with school closures leading to an increased drop-out rate. 

Although the Government of Indonesia issued guidelines for resuming face-to-face teaching in April 2021, many local authorities have been reluctant to take on the responsibility of translating these guidelines into daily practice. As of September 6, 2021, only 39% of schools had reopened for limited face-to-face learning. A lack of access to remote learning means that, for over a year and a half, many children have been facing significant disruptions to their education.

COVID has shown that washrooms are as important as classrooms

Closing schools is easy: reopening them safely and keeping them open during a pandemic is much more complex. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, only 57% of schools worldwide provide basic hygiene services. This means that an estimated 818 million pupils are unable to even wash their hands with soap and water at school, which makes it harder to control transmittable diseases, including COVID-19. The pandemic has highlighted that, for schools, washrooms are just as important as classrooms.

For the Regional Fit for School programme, the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in schools was clear long before the arrival of COVID-19. Implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the programme supports ministries of education in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines to incentivise and monitor improvements in WASH services in schools. It focuses on the introduction of low-cost, routine interventions – such as regular group handwashing, toothbrushing and deworming – that use schools as gateways for far-reaching improvements in children’s health and educational performance.

Fit for School offers a sustainable approach to improving WASH in schools by helping them to identify practical actions that build upon the infrastructure they have, and, with the help of a tailor-made costing tool, to plan for new investments and maintenance costs as part of their annual budgets. ‘It has become increasingly obvious – especially in the face of the huge challenges posed by COVID-19 – that infrastructure investments alone are not enough,’ says Bella Monse, senior advisor with the Regional Fit for School Programme. ‘These offer only very short-term solutions if there is no systematic approach to maintaining and managing hygiene facilities. We currently see that many of the new school toilets built with extra COVID-19 funds are already in disrepair, because no one thought of including their maintenance in school budgets.’

With Fit for School, Indonesian schools can re-open and stay open

In response to COVID-19, Fit for School has been working with schools across Indonesia to introduce simple measures for improving WASH in schools so that children can safely return to their classrooms. The programme has supported local education officials to translate the national re-opening guidelines into basic steps that teachers, parents, and students can take to create a safe environment for learning. These are backed up by three simple checklists which can be used on a daily or weekly basis by school hygiene and safety teams to make sure that the recommended measures are being implemented. For example, following the first checklist, the person in charge of the school entrance area should verify every morning that the handwashing station is usable and that there is water and soap (or hand sanitiser) available. Similar checklists are available for classrooms and for toilet areas, and cover issues such as cleaning and disinfection protocols, waste management, physical distancing and ventilation.

Batu Bara is one of the educational districts that has been implementing these activities. According to Ilyas S. Sitorus, from the District Educational Office, 162 elementary and junior high schools have been following the simplified guidelines and using the checklists since early September. The schools have provided more handwashing facilities and are using the three daily checklists to ensure that classrooms and toilets are kept clean.  School entrances and classrooms display bright, easy to read posters encouraging these activities and giving staff and students simple illustrations to follow.  Beginning with 12 model schools in Bandung and Indramayu, the programme’s WASH in schools interventions have now been replicated in more than 600 schools in six provinces. The interventions have been integrated into the Ministry of Education’s school sanitation guidelines and their implementation is continuously monitored.

On the other side of the globe, schools are facing similar problems

 Education officials in Indonesia are far from the only ones grappling with these issues. Across the globe, in Malawi, education officials are facing a similar dilemma. ‘School closures had a very deep and negative impact,’ says Edward Kalua, acting principal of Karonga Teacher Training College in northern Malawi, where schools were also forced to close for six months in 2020.  ‘We weren’t able to finish teaching the syllabus. Many students dropped out of school as a result: some students got married, young girls became pregnant. Others simply lost the habit and the motivation to learn.’ He adds that COVID-19 has highlighted the acute hygiene challenges already facing schools in Malawi. According to global monitoring data, three quarters of schools in Malawi do not have handwashing facilities with water and soap. A government assessment of schools prior to reopening on September 7, 2020 found that 460 of around 5,000 primary schools had no source of water at all.  

In July 2020, Malawi’s Ministry of Education issued detailed guidelines for reopening schools, colleges and universities. Implementing these, however, poses a huge challenge for schools like his, says Mr Kalua. The guidelines outline a wide range of expectations, but give little practical guidance on how to meet them. Faced with a daunting list of requirements and few resources to act on them, school officials need support to close the gap between their everyday reality and the standards for safe re-opening.

Taking Fit for School to Malawi

This is exactly the expertise which Fit for School has developed over the past decade in South-East Asia. Now, with support from BMZ’s COVID-19 emergency response fund, a German-supported education programme in Malawi is exploring how elements of the approach can be applied in Malawi – and eventually in other African countries, too.

‘Schools have been hit so hard,’ says Anna Kristina Kanathigoda, a technical advisor with the GIZ-implemented Water Policy – Innovations for Resilience programme, which is working with the education programme in Malawi on these adaptations. ‘The last thing they need are pages and pages of complicated requirements.’ The Fit for School Initiative for Africa sees an opportunity to simplify hygiene-related requirements to a set of tasks that can be implemented as part of daily routines. This includes, for example, ensuring that all staff and students wash their hands with soap and wear face masks, and that surfaces are regularly cleaned and disinfected. These activities are supported by age-appropriate posters and materials that staff, students and parents can all identify with. 

Posters designed for primary schools in Malawi
Posters designed for primary schools in Malawi

The idea is not simply to transplant the approach from Asia, but to make it work in the context of Malawi’s national guidelines and local conditions, explains Thomas Kanjodo, Technical Advisor for the Malawi-German education programme implemented by GIZ on behalf of BMZ. He also sees the fact that the programme works closely with teacher training colleges as an advantage: Teachers in training can first learn about, and apply, the sanitation and hygiene measures at their own colleges and then introduce them to the primary schools to which they are seconded. This will also allow for quick feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. 

Edward Kalua, the acting principal, looks forward to the Fit for School initiative translating the Malawian guidelines into simple tools and checklists for everyday use in his college and in Malawi’s schools more broadly: ‘We are getting used to the pandemic now and we don’t want to close schools again.’ 

Sharing experiences and learning from others at International Learning Events (ILE)

As schools in different countries navigate their way to safe reopening strategies, there are plenty of things they can learn from one another. One way that Germany supports opportunities for mutual learning is through the global WASH in Schools Network, a group of more than 60 organisations, including GIZ, UNICEF, Save the Children and Water Aid, working to improve WASH services in schools around the world. This year’s annual WASH in Schools International Learning Exchange presented a timely opportunity for representatives from 22 countries to exchange their experiences on reopening schools during the pandemic. Ever since it was first held in 2012, the Learning Exchange has focused on Asian nations; this year, however, the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance Working Group ’WASH in Institutions’ hosted a session on ‘Safe re-opening of schools in Africa’ with presentations on the situation of schools in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.

For Malawi, Thomas Kanjodo described how schools with no WASH facilities had been provided with buckets and soap as an interim measure until more boreholes could be drilled, and how school committees and local mothers helped by fetching water to ensure a constant supply for hand washing. However, with 200 plus pupils in some classes and low teacher-pupil ratios, there are still challenges in supervising such activities and keeping schools open. 

A window of opportunity

Improving WASH in schools has often been a low priority in countries with limited resources, but COVID-19 has finally brought the issue to everyone’s attention, at national and global levels, says Bella Monse. She recognises the immense challenges remaining, but also sees the current situation as a window of opportunity: ‘Education is in crisis all over the world due to long school closures,’ she says. ‘There’s a new commitment to addressing the problem and these efforts have never been as intense as they are now.’ 

For his part, Malawian acting principal Edward Kalua is determined to do anything it takes to keep schools open after months of disruption. ‘If we give up on a child’s education, we all lose out,’ he says. Meanwhile in Indonesia, Septya Ramadine Ashya is just happy to be back at her desk after so many months of catastrophic disruption: ‘I’m excited because I can now meet my friends and teachers in person.’

November 2021

© GIZ/Christine Lüdke
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