A generation of children could suffer major setbacks in education if nations fail to sufficiently contain the spread of the coronavirus so schools can reopen, according to UNESCO data showing 100 nationwide closures impacting half of the world’s student population.
Investigations of school cases suggest child-to-child transmission is uncommon and not the primary cause of COVID-19 infections in children whose onset coincides with school attendance particularly in preschools and primary schools, the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control found.
That means schools probably are no more dangerous than other social settings with similar densities of people if appropriate physical distancing and hygiene measures are applied, health officials say in arguing that closures of childcare and educational institutions will not provide major benefits.
"We already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic. More than 250 million school age children were out of school. And only a quarter of secondary school children in developing countries were leaving school with basic skills," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement.
"Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities," he said. "The knock-on effects on child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality, among others, are deeply concerning."
Guterres also delivered a video message to coincide with the world body's release of a 26-page educational policy briefing that includes a set of recommendations in four main areas. The U.N. chief said the COVID-19 pandemic — which has infected at least 18.3 million people and killed 695,000 people worldwide so far — is causing the biggest disruption to education in history.
It has been nearly five months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, marking the first time a coronavirus has gained that distinction. Initially, the pandemic forced school closures among 190 countries, affecting 1.6 billion students or 94% of the world's student population, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said.
Schools in 160 countries remain closed, affecting more than 1 billion students, including 100 nationwide shutdowns with no date announced yet for those nations' schools to reopen, according to UNESCO. As many as 40 million children are missing school during a critical pre-school year.
“These findings emphasize the urgent need to ensure the continuity of learning for all in the face of this unprecedented crisis, in particular the most vulnerable,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's director-general, said in a statement.
UNESCO, which led the process of drafting the policy briefing that included input from 15 other organizations, said it plans to convene a special session of its annual Global Education Meeting later this year urging nations to join in putting education at the forefront of their recovery plans.
The policy briefing is meant to prevent "a learning crisis" from turning into a catastrophic event for a generation of students. It recommends that nations takes steps to:
- Suppress transmission of the virus and plan thoroughly for school reopening.
- Protect education financing and coordinate for impact.
- Strengthen the resilience of education systems for equitable and sustainable development.
- Reimagine education and accelerate positive change in teaching and learning.
"We are at a defining moment for the world's children and young people," said Guterres. "The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come."
24 million learners at risk
The pandemic is projected to eliminate a third of the money needed in low and lower-middle income nations to achieve one of the United Nations' 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Already, those nations were US$148 billion short, according to U.N. projections.
The goal known as SDG4 calls on the world to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
Some 24 million learners risk not finding their way back to their studies in 2020 following the COVID-19-induced closures, according to UNESCO. Among those are 5.9 million students in South and West Asia and 5.3 million students in most of Africa who were already facing severe challenges in getting an education before the outbreak of coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March.
Among children and their communities, school closures threaten key services such as healthy meals and time for parents to go to work, and increase risks of violence against women and girls, UNESCO noted.
Studies show promoting public health while keeping schools open may largely depend on adequate contact tracing and testing, according t0 British epidemiologist W. John Edmunds, a professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
"However, many questions remain, including whether there are age-related differences in susceptibility and the likelihood of transmission between children and adolescents. We urgently need large-scale research programs to carefully monitor the impact of schools reopening," Edmunds wrote in an opinion article published in The Lancet medical journal on Monday.
"Only in this way can we take the most appropriate measures to mitigate the risks and allow us to reassure parents, pupils, and teachers alike that schools are safe to attend. There are no quick fixes to this terrible pandemic," he wrote. "However, it is becoming increasingly clear that governments around the world need to find solutions that allow children and young adults to return to full-time education as safely and as quickly as possible."