Some 43 percent of schools worldwide entered the COVID-19 pandemic lacking basic soap-and-water hand-washing facilities, the UN said Thursday, deeming it a key condition for schools to reopen safely.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that 818 million children were affected, putting them at increased risk of being infected with COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases.
Of those, 355 million went to schools which had facilities with water but no soap, while the rest had no facilities or water available for hand-washing at all, the UN agencies said in a joint report.
In the 60 countries at highest risk of health and humanitarian crises due to COVID-19, the report said three in four children lacked basic hand-washing facilities at school at the start of the pandemic.
"Global school closures since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have presented an unprecedented challenge to children's education and wellbeing," said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore.
"We must prioritise children's learning. This means making sure that schools are safe to reopen -- including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water and safe sanitation."
In the least developed countries, seven out of 10 schools lack basic handwashing facilities, the agencies said.
"Access to water, sanitation and hygiene services is essential for effective infection prevention and control in all settings, including schools," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"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 agencies' report lists measures necessary for COVID-19 prevention and control in schools, with guidelines on cleaning and disinfection, as well as handwashing stations and safe toilets.