One year into COVID, UNESCO convenes global meeting of education ministers to ensure learning continuity

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, 85 education ministers highlighted measures to keep schools open, address learning losses and adapt their education systems at an event convened by UNESCO on 29 March 2021.

Close to half the world’s students are still affected by partial or full school closures and over 100 million additional children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading as a result of the pandemic.

While the protection of teachers is essential for schools to reopen safely, a survey conducted by UNESCO and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 finds that only 17 countries out of 149 prioritize teachers in the first phase of vaccination efforts. Another 20 countries include teachers as a priority group for the 2nd phase of vaccinations. Meanwhile 56 countries do not prioritize teachers in national vaccine rollout plans.

Stronger support to protect and train teachers was highlighted across the three parallel sessions of the conference.

In the first roundtable on keeping schools open and supporting teachers, ministers emphasized the need for schools to become more resilient and flexible. They described measures in place for prevention and control, including testing within schools, teacher vaccination plans, investments in mental health and the importance of stronger partnerships with ministries of health.

In the second roundtable on mitigating school and university dropout and learning loss, ministers stressed the focus on equity, a redoubling of investments in remedial education, strengthening social services, prioritizing the youngest children and funding formulas to reach the farthest behind.

In the third roundtable on digital transformation and the future of education, ministers highlighted the importance of teacher training and professional development; public-private partnerships and societal engagement to promote 21stcentury skills and youth employability.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “Without universal access to education and health services, the inequalities which have expended even further during the pandemic will continue to grow. WHO recognizes the central role schools play in safeguarding student health and well-being,” a theme underlined during the conference.

The Africa Union’s Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Professor Sara Anyang Agbor, Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology emphasized that “The consequences of COVID 19 have reinforced the importance of transforming Africa’s education systems through digital transformation, referring to the AU’s framework encompassing online learning, teachers, skills, school connectivity and on and offline safety.”

To support national strategies, UNESCO, UNICEF & World Bank announced a joint mission “Recovering Education 2021” focusing on three priorities: ensuring all children and youth are back in school and receiving comprehensive support including health, nutrition and psycho-social support; accelerating learning and breaking down the digital learning divide; and preparing and empowering all teachers.

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