Madagascar schools weigh in on the reopening amid hygiene fears

Hand hygiene is essential for breaking the transmission of diseases from one person to another. Yet, in public places where good hand hygiene is essential, for example, in schools, handwashing with soap and water remains a challenge. For Global Handwashing Day, this story from Madagascar shows why proper hand hygiene is vital for everyone as schools across the country reopen.
Hoby Randrianimanana
High school student in Madagascar washing hands

Nielsen Andrianomenjanahary, a student at a public higher education institution, fears his school could become a hotspot for the spread of coronavirus. He says that his school did not have enough handwashing facilities to meet the needs of the student body even before the pandemic.

“We have to pay a maintenance fee every time we want to use the facilities. Paying a fee just discourages students from using the facilities, so instead they relieve themselves in the open and don’t wash their hands,” he said.

With schools in Madagascar getting ready to reopen, parents and students have expressed concerns about the ability of schools to carry out COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as handwashing and disinfection, which schools are required to implement.

“Most schools in the country suffer from lack of access to facilities related to water, sanitation and hygiene, particularly toilets and handwashing stations,” says Mr Njaka Randrianarison, an officer in the Ministry of Education’s WASH department. “Separate investments and prioritization of WASH projects in schools are needed to address the current situation,” he says

The recent guidelines on WASH in schools, which was developed by the Ministry of Education with WSSCC and other partners, highlights the shocking statistics: 85 percent of public primary schools and secondary schools don’t have access to drinking water, and 35 percent of these schools lack functional latrines.

This has a direct impact on students’ health. According to Dr Norohasina Rakotoarison, a Health and Environment Department Chief at Madagascar’s Ministry of Public Health, 3.5 million school days are lost every year in Madagascar due to illnesses caused by poor hygiene and lack of WASH infrastructure in schools.

He goes on to point out that while being beneficial to health and academic performance, “investing in proper hand hygiene in schools also helps parents save money on health care.”  

While the situation in private schools is somewhat better, they also have concerns about being able to implement the required protocols. For Mrs Anjaramamy Rasolondranaly, a parent of two children attending private schools in Antananarivo, the school’s inability to increase handwashing frequency and to reinforce supervision around students when doing school activities is a source of concern.

“Children can’t control themselves and constantly touch things, people and their faces,” she says, suggesting that schools should expand their personnel to watch over students, especially their hygiene behaviour.

“Hand hygiene in school is for everyone, not for students only,” points out Mr Patrick Heriniaina, a health official in the Antsimondrano school district of Antananarivo.

School children in Madagascar marching

“Teachers and school officials must be involved in efforts promoting hand hygiene, and they must also set a good example for students,” he says. “But they can’t do it on their own. They need support, especially financial support, to procure tools like handwashing devices, hand sanitizers and soap for their entire student body.”

His concerns are shared by most school officials and teachers in Madagascar as they prepare for school reopening in less than a month. “We are ready to go back, but we are anxious,” says Mr Heriniaina, pointing to the fact that many schools in his district do not have the means to acquire handwashing stations, soap, hand sanitizers and other disinfecting products for all school personnel and students.  

“If we look at the logistics, most schools are not ready to reopen,” says the WASH officer from the Ministry of Education. “Even if schools manage to install handwashing stations, they still need to work on disinfecting school premises, setting up vigilance committees, producing communication tools, and most importantly, ensuring uninterrupted supply of water,” he adds.

Mr Wilfred Rafanomezana is the Director of the Antsiafabositra Collège d’Enseignement Général (secondary school). He deplored the insufficiency of latrines in his school – two latrines for a student body of over 300 this year – and the unsustainable conditions of their handwashing stations made from cheap local materials.

“Some of our handwashing devices are broken, so we need to fix them and add a few more. We will ask parents again to contribute, but that would be difficult because they are already struggling with the ongoing crisis,” he says. Mr Rafanomezana says he fears the school will struggle to accommodate students’ increased hygiene needs.

In recent years, education has been a priority area for government investment. However, 80 percent of the education budget is dedicated to operational costs, leaving very little money for investments in the quality of services and infrastructure.