Reopen schools to secure learning and potential of an entire generation
Global school closures in response to COVID-19 has exacerbated an already worrisome learning crisis – some 325 million children in many countries across East Asia and the Pacific have now missed more than two months of school.
This has placed an unprecedented risk to children’s education, protection and wellbeing, especially for the hardest-to-reach, the most marginalized and the 35 million who were already out-of-school. Some of these children may never return to school. Any gains made in education in recent years are at risk of being reversed.
Governments have attempted to provide continuity of education through online learning, mobile phones, television, radio and printed materials with varying success. While COVID-19 has posed challenges in delivering education to all, it has also provided opportunities for educators to innovate and to take leaps into the unknown.
This pandemic and disruption also has the potential to spark creative new partnerships to build more resilient education systems for the future. The Global Education Coalition brings together a wide array of UN agencies and partners to seek inclusive learning opportunities for all children and youth. This Coalition also recognizes that school closures widen inequalities for the most vulnerable learners and seeks to facilitate the reopening of schools.
Part of that solution is focusing on remote learning opportunities both to mitigate the current disruption and build more open and flexible education systems in the coming years. The measures include virtual and online learning, but crucially must consider low-tech and no-tech solutions for children and youth who have little or no internet access and are among the most vulnerable to education disruption. Distance learning is a complement, not a replacement, for school enrolment.
With the situation in the region stabilizing, we urge governments to reopen schools as soon as possible. Schools do much more than teaching children how to read, write and count. They provide nutrition, health and hygiene services; provide mental health and psychosocial support; and dramatically help to reduce the risk of violence, teenage pregnancy and child marriage.
We do not yet have enough evidence to measure the impact of school closures on transmission rates of COVID-19 and public health decisions will continue to be informed based on new data about the virus. What we do know already is that the longer schools stay closed, the risks to children’s learning, safety and wellbeing are growing daily.
We understand that to reopen schools, governments need to make careful choices based on health and social and economic considerations. To help them make those decisions, UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank and the World Food Programme have issued new guidelines on reopening schools. The framework for reopening schools is based on safe operations, focus on learning, including the most marginalized, and wellbeing and protection. All of these pillars require broad-based partnerships to provide both the policy and financial support for an inclusive and equitable response.
Across the region, policy-makers are considering the timetable of lifting school closures. There are common sense policy measures that can assist in this process, such as staged re-openings with attendance for only a few days a week or for particular grades, clear physical distancing and personal hygiene measures, and adapted personnel and attendance regulations. Clear guidance at the national level is needed, in particular to safeguard vulnerable students and staff.
The longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return. These risks are particularly acute for girls and young women, learners with disabilities, ethnic minorities, migrant learners and other vulnerable groups. We ask governments to balance children’s best interests with overall public health considerations.
We urge countries to seize the opportunity to open up better, use the new modalities created or experimented with during the crisis, equip teachers with new skills, create safer learning environments and focus on those children who could be deprived of the opportunity to return to school. At stake is the fundamental human right to education and futures of hundreds of millions of learners. We also know that the welfare of societies depends on inclusive and quality education in terms of reducing inequalities, improving health outcomes and increasing social cohesion.
We are committed to help countries recover, rebuild and reimagine their education systems. When schools reopen, we must make sure that every child is included and learns; every child has access to school-based health, hygiene and nutrition services; and every child is connected to the internet. Without this we risk undermining the learning and potential of an entire generation of children.
Karin Hulshof is Regional Director of UNICEF East Asia and Pacific and Shigeru Aoyagi is Director of UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education