Millions of children may return to a school with nowhere to wash their hands

4 min read
Students washing their hands at Kavunguti Primary School, Kasungu, Malawi
Image: WaterAid/ Dennis Lupenga

Children returning to school this September may find a very different classroom to the ones they left, with socially distanced desks and a renewed focus on handwashing. But in thousands of schools around the world, even this most basic defence against COVID-19 will be out of reach for millions of students and their teachers.

New figures released recently by the World Health Organization and Unicef show the staggeringly slow progress we are making towards all children having clean water, decent toilets and somewhere to wash their hands at their school.

43% of schools globally have nowhere for their pupils to wash their hands with soap and water. In sub-Saharan Africa, where a million COVID-19 cases have now been reported (likely to be a serious underestimate) and thousands have lost their lives, this figure rises to nearly three-quarters of schools (74%) that lack soap and water for handwashing.


A picture of a small child washing their hands

WHO and Unicef further highlight that in the 60 countries identified as having the highest risk of health and humanitarian crisis due to COVID-19, 3 out of 4 lacked basic handwashing services at the start of the pandemic. In the face of COVID-19, hand hygiene has never been more important as a crucial defence, but millions of the world’s most vulnerable pupils and teachers are being let down and their education is at risk.  

For young people without clean water, decent toilets and handwashing facilities (WASH) in their schools, it’s normal for them to miss their lessons to walk long distances to collect water or use bushes on the school ground to go to the loo in the open. Girls often miss school days or drop out of education entirely because they are on their period and have no safe, private and hygienic facilities to manage them. Globally, 31% of schools also lack clean water on-site and 37% of schools do not have a basic toilet for their pupils to use.

Jean-Bosco Twizeyimana is a student at Group Scholaire Kibungo in Bugesera in Eastern Rwanda. The school has a very basic water harvesting system, but it’s not enough to meet the needs of all the pupils.

There's no water to wash hands after using the toilet, so we don't wash them before coming out of class. At home, we don't wash our hands, the problem is we don't have the water.

As COVID-19 spread around the world, schools closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Whilst many pupils have had access to some level of digital learning, a whole generation of children in developing countries risk being left further behind. The poverty gap may continue to widen between children who are able to continue to access education and those who cannot.

Schools are also vital for teaching and embedding good hygiene practices which pupils can take back to their families to help keep them healthy as well, ensuring long-lasting protection against future outbreaks. WaterAid is calling for governments to make hygiene, water and toilets in schools a top priority now and for post-COVID-19 and to make funding available to get proper handwashing facilities in all schools.


Graphics showing schools have books but not water and soap

Too many schools are still built with no clean water or toilets which means they cannot provide safe or good quality education. Donors and development agencies must commit to stopping this dangerous practice so that pupils do not have to worry every day about where they will get a drink or go to the toilet.

Ada OkoWilliams, Senior WASH Manager – Sanitation, WaterAid, said:

Education is essential for escaping poverty, but schools without water, toilets and hygiene threaten the health and learning opportunities for millions of children, especially girls. Pupils should not have to choose between staying healthy and getting an education. Progress towards ensuring every school has the water, toilets and soap they need to help pupils stay safe is achingly slow and COVID-19 must act as a catalyst to ensure these basic services are prioritized. We want to see governments make money available to get soap and clean water into every school to protect pupils, teachers and their entire communities.