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UNICEF sounds alarm over global school closures

The pandemic has kept 168 million children from attending schools and for many of them the consequences could be disastrous, UNICEF reported.

A new UNICEF report calls empty pandemic classrooms a "catastrophic education emergency"
A new UNICEF report calls empty pandemic classrooms a "catastrophic education emergency" (AN/MChe Lee)

GENEVA (AN) — The coronavirus pandemic has kept 168 million children from attending schools around the world and for many of them the consequences of falling behind could be disastrous, the U.N. children's agency reported on Wednesday.

Some 98 million of these children, or 58%, were in Latin American and Caribbean schools, according to UNICEF, which warned that the consequences of extended time away from classrooms range from lost knowledge or career opportunities to increased risks of forced marriage or labor. The region has endured a steep rise in poverty during the pandemic that now affects more than 200 people.

Panama, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Bolivia had the most lost school days among 14 mainly Latin American and Caribbean nations where classrooms have been largely empty since the World Health Organization declared on March 11, 2020 that the COVID-19 outbreak, first detected in Wuhan, China late last year, had become a pandemic, New York-based UNICEF said in an 18-page report.

The next worst-affected regions were South Asia, with 37 million or 22% of the children unable to attend schools, and East Asia and the Pacific, with 25 million or 15% of the children. Next came the Middle East and Africa, with 9 million or 5% of the children.

Many governments have been forced to close schools and, in some cases, switch to distance learning via videoconference, in an attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Over the past year at least 114 million people were infected and 2.5 million people died worldwide. Many studies have shown that the virus spreads less readily among children, though researchers also warn that school classrooms can, under some circumstances, become transmission hot spots.

'Catastrophic education emergency'

For the purposes of the report, schools are considered fully closed when most or all of the children cannot attend. Partial closures can refer to areas where some but not all of the schools remain open, while fully open districts are those where all grade levels can attend in person.

The situation has evolved since the start of the pandemic. Initially, 150 countries fully closed their schools, 10 partially closed them and 10 others kept them fully open, according to available UNICEF data. Just two months later a dramatic shift began towards partially or fully open schools. But many remain closed: 214 million pre-primary to upper secondary education students in 23 countries are still missing at least three-quarters of classroom instruction time.

More nine-in-10 governments introduced some form of remote learning through radio, television or the internet. But for the most vulnerable children, UNICEF reported, the loss of physical classrooms also deprived them of their one nutritious meal a day, took away their essential immunization and health support and kept them confined around violent or dysfunctional family members.

"As schools reopen, governments must nurture the development and well-being of every student when they return to the classroom, with comprehensive services including remedial learning, health and nutrition, and mental health and protection measures," the report said in  calling on authorities to ensure all children return to schools when they reopen. "Children cannot afford another year of school closures."

Outside the United Nations' headquarters in New York, UNICEF dramatized the situation in a photo op. It assembled 168 empty desks, each representing 1 million students, with sky blue daypacks slung over the seats. A sign, positioned between the desks and U.N. complex and Manhattan skyline in the background, posed a simple math equation: 168 million children — 1 school year = COVID education crisis.

“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," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF's executive director.

"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,” she said in a statement. “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 prioritize them in reopening plans.”