As of late Tuesday, over 850 million children and youth – roughly half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide closures are in force in 102 countries and local shut-downs in 11 others. This represents more than a doubling in the number of learners prevented from attending educational institutions, with further increases expected.
The scale and speed of the school and university closures represents an unprecedented challenge for the education sector. Countries around the world are racing to fill the void with distance learning solutions but the uncertain duration of the closures adds further complication to their efforts. These range from hi-tech alternatives like real-time video classes conducted remotely to lower-tech options such as educational programming on radio and television.
As an immediate response to massive school closures, UNESCO has established a COVID-19 task force to provide advice and technical assistance to governments working to provision education to students out of school. The Organization is also holding regular virtual meetings with education ministers from all over the world to share experiences and assess priority needs.
UNESCO is also launching a Global COVID-19 Education Coalition that brings together multilateral partners and the private sector, including Microsoft and the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), to help countries deploy remote learning systems so as to minimize educational disruptions and maintain social contact with learners.
“The current situation imposes immense challenges for countries to be able to provide uninterrupted learning for all children and youth in an equitable manner. We are stepping up on our global response by creating a coalition to ensure a fast and coordinated response. Beyond meeting immediate needs, this effort is an opportunity to rethink education, scale-up distance learning and make education systems more resilient, open and innovative,” says UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
“Difficulties rise exponentially when school closures are prolonged,” said Stefania Giannini, UNECO’s Assistant Director-General for Education. “Schools, however imperfectly, play an equalizing role in society and when they close, inequalities become far greater.”
UNESCO will further host regular webinars and virtual meetings to allow country representatives opportunities to share information on the effectiveness of approaches used in different contexts, building on the success of its ministerial videoconference of 10 March that brought together 73 countries.
The adverse impacts of school closures are difficult to overstate and many them extend beyond the education sector. UNESCO has compiled a short list of these impacts to help countries anticipate and mitigate problems. They include:
Interrupted learning: The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities outside school.
Nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted school meals for healthy nutrition. When schools close, nutrition is compromized.
Protection: Schools provide safety for many children and youth and when they close, young people are more vulnerable and at risk.
Parents unprepared for distance and home schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the children’s learning at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.
Unequal access to digital learning portals: Lack of access to technology or good internet connectivity is an obstacle to continued learning, especially for students from disadvantaged families.
Gaps in childcare: In the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased peer pressure and substance abuse.
High economic costs: Working parents are more likely to miss work to take care of their children when schools close. This results in wage loss and decreased productivity.
Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open: Localized school closures place additional burden on schools as parents and officials redirect children to schools that are open.
Rise in dropout rates: It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen, especially after protracted closures.
Social isolation: Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development.