By Vatican News
“Today, almost nine months since the coronavirus outbreak started, 872 million students – or half the world’s student population – in 51 countries are still unable to head back to their classrooms.”
Those were the startling figures relayed by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore at a joint UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO press conference on Tuesday in New York.
Giving details on new updated school-related public health measures in the context of the coronavirus, she said, “At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools closed their doors in 192 countries, sending 1.6 billion students home.”
“Millions of these children were fortunate enough to learn remotely — online, through radio or TV broadcasts, or otherwise.”
However, she added, “UNICEF data shows that, for at least 463 million children whose schools closed due to COVID-19, there was no such thing as ‘remote learning’.”
No remote learning
The reason for this, she explained, was because at least one-third of the world’s schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered their schools.
Ms Fore described the disruption to the lessons of millions of children, as “nothing short of a global education emergency.”
During the press conference she also shared another alarming statistic: The UNICEF chief said her agency recently surveyed 158 countries about their school reopening plans and found that 1 in 4 countries has not put a date in place for allowing schoolchildren back to the classroom.
Effect on children
Speaking about the devastating consequences of prolonged periods of school closures on the lives of children, the UNICEF Director said among other things, “their mental health is affected” and they are “more vulnerable to child labour and sexual abuse.”
She also noted that “that beyond learning, schools provide children with vital health, immunization and nutrition services, and a safe and supportive environment.”
Appeal to governments
Ms Fore called on governments to prioritize the re-opening of schools when restrictions are lifted.
“We’re urging them,” she said, “to look at all the things that children need – learning, protection, physical health, mental health – and ensure the best interest of every child is put first.”
The executive director highlighted that in Senegal, schools have spaced-out classroom chairs to keep distance between students. While in Rwanda new classrooms are being built and more teachers are being recruited.
She pointed out, “Before the pandemic, the world was facing a learning crisis — in terms of both access to, and the quality of, education for every child.
“If we don’t take action now”, Ms Fore stressed, “this crisis will only deepen. And children will pay the highest price of all.”