New Delhi: UNESCO has published its most recent figures for out-of-school children, as schools reopen progressively across the globe. As of mid-April, 1.5 billion children and youth were affected by school closures in 195 countries, from pre-primary to higher education. While this figure is dropping, 1.3 billion learners in 186 countries are still unable to attend school. Of the 195 countries that had closed schools in April, 128 have yet to announce plans for their reopening.
In China and Japan, between 30 and 40% of schools have reopened. Some Nordic countries, including Denmark and Norway, have opened primary schools. In Madagascar, students studying towards their high school diplomas have returned to class. Schools in most Pacific Island nations have also reopened their doors.
Preparing for the return to school is of increasing priority for the Global Education Coalition, along with support to the provision of distance education. A well-organized strategy for reopening schools is essential to help prevent dropouts and the widening of inequalities due to COVID-19-related school closures. This is why a strong message must be sent as of now to authorities, communities and families to encourage all learners, especially vulnerable populations, to return to educational institutions that reopen their doors. In this respect, UNESCO is placing special emphasis on the education of girls and women.
“The reopening of schools is a positive development because we know that closures have serious consequences, especially in widening inequalities. It is essential that educational institutions reopen in an orderly manner, in line with a number of pre-conditions. International coordination, based on the sharing of experiences and meeting the needs expressed by countries, is essential to rise to these immense challenges,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “This issue is vital for vulnerable groups, especially girls, as schools help protect against violence and inequalities.”
To help countries identify the necessary conditions and manage the reopening of educational institutions, UNESCO has launched a wide-ranging global consultation.
On 24 April, 500 participants took part in the sixth webinar organized by UNESCO as part of its educational response to COVID-19. Targeting education ministries, civil society and educators, the webinar focused on effective strategies for getting learners back to school, and in sharing lessons learned from past crises. The main concerns raised included the health, safety and wellbeing of students and the education community. Participants also shared information on key issues such as the timing, conditions and processes for reopening schools.
On 29 April, UNESCO convened an online meeting of 13 education ministers from countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to discuss the reopening of schools. The ministers who spoke underlined that reopening schools was essential to prevent the widening of inequalities, to ensure the quality of education and to protect the psychosocial welfare of students.
Although timelines varied depending on the pandemic’s progress in each country, several States had already made tentative plans to progressively reopen educational institutions. Again, the health and safety of pupils, teachers and families was the main concern. Additionally, programmes may need to be revised, with remedial courses for the most affected students. School buildings may also need to be adapted, and hygiene and other preventative measures stepped up.