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Why South Sudanese Children are Safer in School Despite COVID-19 Pandemic

La Salle School in South Suda's Catholic Diocese of Rumbek

Closure of schools in South Sudan owing to COVID-19 has exposed children in the East-Central African nation to numerous societal dangers, the head of a Catholic school in the country has said, noting that the children are safer in schools, coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding.

In an interview with Vatican News, the Director of the La Salle School in South Sudan’s Diocese of Rumbek (DoR), Br. Joseph Alak, underscored the need to weigh between keeping children in the country safe from COVID-19 infections and keeping them at home where, he said, they are at a greater risk.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, reopening schools has been a difficult issue to consider. However, it is crucial to balance the extremely harmful effects of school closures on children with the need to control the spread of COVID-19,” Br. Alak said.

The La Salle Brother added, “Yes, children are at risk of infection, and yes, this is terrifying for us. However, the vast majority of children, if infected, show mild symptoms and recover well. And the risks to them of keeping schools closed outweigh the health risks caused by the pandemic.”

“We now know more about children and COVID-19 than we did before, and we know that children are less likely to get very sick,” he further said.

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La Salle School in DoR is a fairly new secondary school, reconstructed when the warring South Sudanese politicians agreed to a transitional Government of National Unity following the September 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

The school, located about 370 Kilometres Northwest of South Sudan’s capital, Juba, opened its doors to 153 boys, aged 14 to 16, in March 2020.

“It was to be a short-lived school term,” Vatican News reports, adding that the South Sudanese government ordered schools to be closed in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There are other schools run by DoR, including a primary school and a secondary school for girls spearheaded by the Loreto Sisters.

Br. Alak told Vatican News that without a school to go to, some of the boys would be exposed to gangs, physical and emotional violence. Construction of La Salle, therefore, became their safe haven.

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“During the war, schools were destroyed or used as military bases. The unfortunate consequence was that there is a high rate of illiteracy in South Sudan today,” Vatican News reports.

According to Br. Alak, closure of schools in South Sudan amid COVID-19 has led to an increase in abuse, exploitation, early child marriages, and early pregnancies.

“We have seen growing evidence of the negative impact that closed classrooms have had on children,” he says in the Vatican News report, and adds, “Children are safer inside school walls than outside.”

According to the Religious Brother, there is “overwhelming” evidence of the negative impact of staying at home on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning.

He says that when the children are out of school for extended periods of time, their exposure to physical, emotional and sexual violence increases; their mental health, on the other hand, deteriorates.

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Children who stay out of school, Br. Alak observes, are more vulnerable to child labor and less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.

He emphasized, in the interview with Vatican News, that hundreds of children, particularly those living in rural areas, from poorer families or with special needs, rely on schools as a lifeline for meals.

Closure of schools shuts the children’s means of survival in such cases, he says, and explains, “When schools close, their lifeline is taken away.”

Br. Alak further says that the aim of the school, which sits on a 48-hectare plot of land donated by village elders, is to raise the school’s capacity for learners from 153 to 480 boys.

The school has cultivated good relations with the community around the school, sharing its water with the inhabitants of the neighboring villages.

“The four wells are providing the people living near the school with clean water. Some families are using the water to grow vegetables,” Br. Alak says in the Vatican News report.

There are 11 teachers at the school including those trained in South Sudan and those drawn from neighboring Kenya and Uganda.