By Robin Gomes
Education for more than 168 million children worldwide has come to a standstill with schools closing for almost a year because of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. These are some of the findings of a new report released by the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, on Wednesday.
The report, entitled “Covid-19 and School Closures”, says that 14 countries worldwide have remained largely closed since March 2020 to February 2021. Two-thirds of those countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean, affecting nearly 98 million schoolchildren. Of the 14 countries, Panama has kept schools closed for the most days, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh, and Bolivia.
A “catastrophic education emergency”
“As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created,” said Henrietta Fore UNICEF Executive Director. “With every day that goes by,” she noted, “children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price.” “We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children,” she said and urged that “no effort be spared to keep schools open, or prioritize them in reopening plans”.
Deprived of other school benefits
According to UNICEF, school closures deprive the majority of schoolchildren worldwide the scope to interact with their peers, seek support, access health and immunization services and a nutritious meal. The longer schools remain closed, the longer children are cut off from these critical elements of childhood.
The UN agency points out that school closures have devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learning are at an increased risk of never returning to the classroom, and even being forced into child marriage or child labour. According to the latest data by UNESCO, more than 888 million children worldwide continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures.’
UNICEF's Pandemic Classroom
To draw attention to the stark reality of a year of education disruption and raise awareness about the need for governments to keep schools open, or prioritize them in reopening plans, UNICEF on Wednesday also unveiled a symbolic ‘Pandemic Classroom’ at the UN headquarters in New York. It is a model open-air classroom made up of 168 empty desks, with empty UNICEF backpacks behind each chair. Each desk represents a million children living in countries where schools have been almost entirely closed. The cover of the UNICEF’s report also has a photo of the “Pandemic Classroom”, on the blackboard of which is written in large: “CLASS ATTENDANCE - absent: 168 million children.”
Fore said that the ‘Pandemic Classroom’ “is a message to governments” that “we must prioritize reopening schools, and we must prioritize reopening them better than they were before”. UNICEF’s Framework for Reopening Schools, issued jointly with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP and the World Bank, offers practical advice for national and local authorities. (Source: UNICEF)