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Access to clean water and sanitation facilities is key to ensuring children stay healthy and safe, but schools worldwide aren’t equipped to make handwashing easy for students, according to a new report.

The World Health Organization (WHO)/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) released a report on Thursday that revealed 43% of schools around the world lacked access to basic handwashing with soap and water in 2019. The data presents a significant challenge as schools attempt to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic and children face the risk of catching the virus and other transmittable diseases.

The WHO recommends frequent handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds, social distancing, avoiding touching the face, and practicing respiratory hygiene to protect against COVID-19. But around 818 million students — one third (295 million) of which live in sub-Saharan Africa — did not have basic hand-washing facilities at their school in 2019, making it much harder to protect themselves against coronavirus. What’s more, 355 million children had facilities with water but no soap at their schools. 

According to the report, as many as 7 out of 10 schools lack basic hand-washing facilities in the least developed countries, and half lack basic sanitation and water services. In the 60 countries where COVID-19 remains the biggest threat, 3 in 4 children lacked basic water service at school, and more than half lacked basic sanitation in 2019.

The report also showed that 1 in 3 schools worldwide had either limited drinking water or no drinking water at all, and 698 million children lacked access to basic sanitation at school. 

Girls are especially vulnerable without access to water and sanitation facilities at school. If they share toilets with boys, they are at higher risk of sexual violence, and they might miss school during their period if they lack the resources needed to manage their menstruation.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore stressed the importance of ensuring schools are safe for all students before they return.

"We must prioritize children’s learning," Fore said in a news release. "This means making sure that schools are safe to reopen – including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water, and safe sanitation."

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added in the release that countries must prioritize education in relief efforts.

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

The report calls on governments to balance public health measures and the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longer children are out of school, the more their safety, well-being, and education are in jeopardy, evidence shows. 

JMP includes recommendations in the report for national and local authorities to consult to keep children safe while they continue their education. The guidelines include implementing water, sanitation, and hygiene protocols for personal protective equipment, cleaning, and disinfection, as well as making clean water, hand-washing stations, and safe toilets accessible.


Defeat Poverty

43% of Schools Around the World Lacked Access to Water and Soap in 2019: Report

By Leah Rodriguez  and  Pia Gralki