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UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

1 billion kids affected by school closures: UN

  • Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94% of the world’s student population
  • António Guterres said modern technology has failed to help students from disadvantaged communities.

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed the biggest disruption of education in history, impacting the learning of nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, the United Nations (UN) said, as it called for reopening schools once the local transmission of the disease has been brought under control.

Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94% of the world’s student population and up to 99% in low and lower-middle-income countries, the UN said in a policy brief.

“We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people," António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, said in a video message and post on the official website.

“The decisions that governments and partners take now will have a lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come."

Guterres said modern technology has failed to help students from disadvantaged communities.

“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 the highest risk of being left behind," he added.

The UN report said the “crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults...Learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress, not least in support of girls and young women’s educational access and retention. Some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone".

Though the policy brief does not give country-specific data, India, with a large education system, reflects the challenges highlighted by it. Its 1.5 million schools and more than 50,000 colleges and universities catering to around 280 million students have been closed since mid-March. Though online learning has picked up in pockets, there is a huge digital divide in the country with a large pool of students not having access to reliable internet.

The 2017-18 National Sample Survey report said only 23.8% of Indian households had internet access. In rural households, only 14.9% had access, and in urban households, 42% had access.

“Let’s look at the situation within the unprecedented context…it’s not just about the illness, there are allied economic anxieties, loss of livelihoods, issues of hunger, etc. Because of unemployment and income loss, there will be tremendous financial pressure on families and yes, we can see drop-out of students, especially girls. The education system will have to look at learners through this prism, with sensitivity and compassion," said Anita Rampaul, aprofessor at Delhi University.

“Online classes are not an equitable solution and a replacement for face-to-face education. Not just schools, even at the university level, students don’t have internet connections and the personal connection is not there."

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