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

Children returning to school this September will continue to keep themselves and each other safe from COVID-19 by socially distancing, wearing masks, and frequent handwashing. But, for millions of students and teachers, the simple act of washing their hands with soap and water, the most basic defence against COVID-19, will be out of reach.

Figures released 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 school. 43% of schools globally have nowhere for their pupils to wash their hands with soap and water. In sub-Saharan Africa, where we have seen steadily increasing COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths over the summer, this figure rises to nearly three-quarters of schools (74%) that lack soap and water for handwashing. With only 1.4% of the entire African continent fully vaccinated, and the added threat of highly infectious COVID-19 variants, some of the world’s most vulnerable students and teachers are being let down and their education is at risk.

Education plays a vital role in ensuring people can reach their full potential. For young people without clean water, decent toilets, and handwashing facilities 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 toilet in the open. Girls often miss school days or drop-out of at the onset of menstruation as they have no safe, private, and hygienic facility to manage their period. Globally, 31% of schools also lack clean water on-site and 37% of schools do not have a basic toilet for their students to use.

Support students as they go back to school

Student at a desk
Jean-Bosco studies in class at Group Scholaire Kibungo, Rweru, Bugesera, Rwanda, February 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ Jacques Nkinzingabo

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 continues spread around the world, many schools remain closed to stop spread of the virus. Whilst many pupils in Canada 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 in the future and to make funding available to get proper handwashing facilities in all schools.

Too many schools are still built with no clean water or toilets which means they cannot provide safe or 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.

Man collecting water
Jean-Bosco fetches himself a glass of water at Group Scholaire Kibungo, Rweru, Bugesera, Rwanda, February 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ Jacques Nkinzingabo

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.”

WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme – WASH in Schools Data can be found at

Key education and WASH statistics

  • Globally, 31% of schools do not have a basic water service. 
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 56% of schools do not have a basic water service.
  • Globally, 37% of schools do not have a decent toilet. 
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 53% of schools do not have a decent toilet. 
  • Globally, 43% of schools do not have soap and water for handwashing. 
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 74% of schools do not have soap and water for handwashing.