The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students in all countries and continents and an additional 23.8 million children and youth could drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone, the UN Secretary General’s policy brief on education said.
“Education is the key to personal development and the future of societies. It unlocks opportunities and narrows inequalities. It is the bedrock of informed, tolerant societies, and a primary driver of sustainable development. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education ever,” secretary general Antonio Guterres said in a video statement launching his policy brief on ‘Education and COVID19’ on Tuesday.
He said that in mid-July, schools were closed in more than 160 countries, affecting over 1 billion students and at least 40 million children worldwide have missed out on education in their critical pre-school year.
The policy brief said that the pandemic has exacerbated education disparities and learning losses due to prolonged school closures threaten to erase progress made in recent decades, not least for girls and young women.
“Some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) could drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone,” the brief said.
Guterres said as the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, “we need education – the great equaliser – more than ever. We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future.”
Guterres voiced concern that parents, especially women, have been forced to assume heavy care burdens in the home and despite the delivery of lessons by radio, television and online, and the best efforts of teachers and parents, many students remain out of reach.
“Learners with disabilities, those in minority or disadvantaged communities, displaced and refugee students and those in remote areas are at highest risk of being left behind,” he said.
The UN chief underlined that the world already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic as 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.
“Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities. The knock-on effects on child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality, among others, are deeply concerning,” he said.
Launching the policy brief, he said it focuses on a new campaign with education partners and United Nations agencies called ‘Save our Future’ and 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.
The campaign will amplify the voices of children and young people and urge governments worldwide to recognise investment in education as critical to COVID-19 recovery.
The policy brief calls for action in four key areas of reopening schools, prioritising education in financing decisions, targeting the hardest to reach and future of education. On reopening schools, the brief says that once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority.
The UN has issued guidance to help governments in this complex endeavour and Guterres said it will be essential to balance health risks against risks to children’s education and protection, and to factor in the impact on women’s labour force participation.
He also stressed that consultation with parents, carers, teachers and young people is fundamental.
On prioritising education in financing decisions, Guterres said that before the crisis hit, low and middle-income countries already faced an education funding gap of USD 1.5 trillion dollars a year and this gap has now grown further.
“Education budgets need to be protected and increased. And it is critical that education is at the heart of international solidarity efforts, from debt management and stimulus packages to global humanitarian appeals and official development assistance,” Guterres said.
The brief’s focus of targeting the hardest to reach emphasizes that education initiatives must seek to reach those at greatest risk of being left behind — people in emergencies and crises; minority groups of all kinds; displaced people and those with disabilities.
“They should be sensitive to the specific challenges faced by girls, boys, women and men, and should urgently seek to bridge the digital divide,” Guterres said.
The brief also highlights that the future of education is here and there is a generational opportunity to reimagine education.
“We can take a leap towards forward-looking systems that deliver quality education for all as a springboard for the Sustainable Development Goals,” Guterres said adding that to achieve this, there is a need to invest in digital literacy and infrastructure.
The brief notes that to cope better with future crises, governments should strengthen the resilience of education systems by placing a strong focus on equity and inclusion; and on reinforce capacities for risk management. “Failure to do so poses major risks to international peace and stability,” it said.