COVID-19: Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost a full year, says UNICEF

UNICEFunveils ‘Pandemic Classroom’ at United Nations Headquarters in New York to call attention to the need for governments to prioritise the reopening of schools

New Delhi: Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns, according to new data released today by UNICEF. Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning.

The analysis of school closure report notes that14 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.

“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. With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price,” said Henrietta Fore UNICEF Executive Director.“We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children. No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans.”

Table 1: Number of countries/children where schools have remained closed since March 2020*
  Schools have remained closed almost an entire year (# of countries) Schoolchildren affected
Number (in millions) Percentage
East Asia & the Pacific 1 25 15%
Middle East & North Africa 3 9 5%
East & Southern Africa 0 n.a. n.a.
Western & Central Africa 0 n.a. n.a.
Europe & Central Asia 0 n.a. n.a
Latin America & the Caribbean 9 98 58%
South Asia 1 37 22%
TOTAL 14 168 100%
*Note: Countries were identified based on the number of instruction days since 11 March 2020, the reference date for when schools were fully closed, to February 2021. The data reflect school closure status over the past 11 months. In cases where countries had less than 10 days of fully opened schooling and less than 12 days of partially open schooling, they were deemed as remaining closed for almost a year of instruction time. The analysis covers from the pre-primary education to the upper secondary education.

School closures have devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learningare at an increased risk of never returning to the classroom, and even being forced into child marriage or child labor. According to latest data by UNESCO, more than 888 million children worldwide continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures.

The majority of schoolchildren worldwide rely on their schools as a place where they can 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.

To call attention to the education emergency and raise awareness about the need for governments to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans, UNICEF today unveiled ‘Pandemic Classroom, a model classroom made up of 168 empty desks, each desk representing the million children living in countries where schools have been almost entirely closed – a solemn reminder of the classrooms in every corner of the world that remain empty.

“This classroom represents the millions of centers of learning that have sat empty—many for almost the entire year. Behind each empty chair hangs an empty backpack—a placeholder for a child’s deferred potential,” said Fore. “We do not want shuttered doors and closed buildings to obscure the fact that our children’s futures are being put on indefinite pause. This installation is a message to governments: we must prioritize reopening schools, and we must prioritize reopening them better than they were before.”

As students return to their classrooms, they will need support to readjust and catch up on their learning. School reopening plans must incorporate efforts to recover children’s lost education. UNICEF urges governments to prioritise the unique needs of every student, with comprehensive services covering remedial learning, health and nutrition, and mental health and protection measures in schools to nurture children and adolescents’ development and wellbeing. UNICEF’s Framework for Reopening Schools, issued jointly with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP and the World Bank, offers practical advice for national and local authorities.

INDIA HIGHLIGHTS

In India, closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, there are over six million girls and boys who were already out of school even before the COVID-19 crisis began.

Online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Pre-COVID, only a quarter of households (24 per cent) in India had access to the internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide.

Till date in India only eight states/UTs have opened all classes from class 1 to class 12; 11 states have reopened classes 6-12 and 15 states have only opened classes 9-12. Three states have reopened anganwadi centers, with younger children losing out greatly on crucial foundational learning.

“It has been nearly a year since the pandemic caused schools to close and disrupt the normal routine of children throughout India. We know that the longer children stay out of school, the more vulnerable they become, with less chances of returning to school. Any decision to reopen schools is made with the best interests of children in mind and as schools re-open in a staggered manner with children returning to their classrooms, we must strive to support them in catching up on the learning they have missed. This is especially true for those who were not able to access digital or remote learning opportunities. Further, the mental health and well-being of children is a crucial concern. Psycho-social support from teachers, parents and caregivers is a priority,” said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative.

UNICEF, UNESCO, UNHCR, World Bank and World Food Programme developed a Global Framework for Reopening Schools which was adapted to the Indian context. The Ministry of Education has finalized guidelines, drafted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), for safe school re-opening with emphasis on promoting regular handwashing and safe hygiene practices of students, teachers and other school staff and sanitization of schools, with adequate supplies and facilities as well as physical distancing strategies. Guidelines for schools re-opening in India https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/SOP_Guidelines_for_reopening_schools.pdf

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