Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Kone Gininkita, a preschool and primary teacher in the town of Sangouine in western Ivory Coast, is worried that some of his students may not return to school this year. He estimates that 10 percent of them will drop out as their families have been pushed further into poverty due to the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I fear they will fall into criminality or all sorts of vices,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.
If Gininkita’s fears turn to reality, his pupils will become part of the nearly 24 million students worldwide – from pre-primary to tertiary – who may drop out of school next year, according to the United Nations.
The grim figures are part of what UN chief Antonio Guterres called a “generational catastrophe” in early August.
“The evidence of the impact of school closure on children’s learning – but also on their wellbeing – is absolutely overwhelming,” said Robert Jenkins, global chief of education at UNICEF, highlighting that the longer children stay out of school the less likely they are to return.
“Children from the most marginalised communities are paying the heaviest price, so we are witnessing an exacerbation of inequalities,” he explained.
At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns in early April, close to 1.6 billion children were out of school as more than 180 governments imposed temporary closures, intensifying an already existing learning crisis. Today, more than 870 million pupils are still unable to attend, according to UNICEF.
The World Bank predicts that if drastic remedial action is not taken to alleviate the learning crisis, the effort to halve the percentage of learning poor by 2030 will suffer a substantial setback. Even before the pandemic, 53 percent of children in low and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a simple piece of text by the age of 10.
While some countries were able to cushion the effects of school closures by setting up online courses, almost 500 million children – a third of the world’s schoolchildren – were unable to access remote learning, according to a UNICEF report.
This played out differently across countries, mirroring existing inequalities, including the digital divide. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where almost half of people lack access to electricity, 120 million pupils – nearly half of all in the region – were unable to access remote learning.
Given the existing barriers, the digitisation of the learning process is only one part of the solution, and by focusing on it “we would continue to miss those children in the short term”, said Abdirahman Mahamud, a senior health emergency officer coordinating research into COVID-19 and children for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Underscoring that online learning is not the only option available, Maria Van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 technical lead for the WHO, urged governments to prioritise schools opening despite a certain level of risk.
— Maria Van Kerkhove (@mvankerkhove) September 16, 2020
“Schools can be opened safely in situations where the virus is controlled. There are tools that are in place that are working to bring transmission to a low level, that are working to save lives. We can do this,” said Van Kerkhove.
“Schools do not operate in isolation, they are operating in communities and if you control transmission in a community, you can open up schools with these measures that are outlined,” she added.
Beyond the devastating effects on the learning process, school closures have far broader consequences.
“Schools, especially for vulnerable families, provide other means of survival such as nutritious meals, access to health[care, such as] immunisation, safety … all of which is compromised at a time when these services are even more important,” said Mahamud.
As a result, the absence of a safety network provided by schools makes children more vulnerable to violence, child labour, early marriage and other forms of exploitation.
In a global survey of more than 25,000 children and their caregivers, Save the Children found that during school closures violence at home doubled. The percentage of children who experienced violence at home rose from 8 percent to 17 percent when children did not attend school in person.
For the first time in 20 years, the world may see an increase in child labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said, while those 152 million children estimated to already be in the business sector face greater risks due to COVID-19.
Such burdens, though, do not weigh equally on boys and girls. “We are very concerned about reversing the many gains that have been made in expanding access to schools for girls,” said Jenkins.
“In East Africa it took a lot of efforts to put girls in schools, but when you have an economic crisis affecting parents, she will be the first most affected. We are going to see the impact in the next one or two years in terms of child marriage and lost opportunities, in addition to the burden of the household, which mostly falls on girls,” said Mahamud.
Following the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, a Malala Fund report showed that following school closures in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, girls’ school enrolment rates dropped, while in Sierra Leone alone, teenage pregnancy increased from 30 to 65 percent, according to data gathered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The WHO, together with UNESCO and UNICEF, published a set of guidelines on Tuesday on how to reopen schools, insisting that their closure should be considered a last and temporary resort at a local level in areas with intense transmission.
We all want to:
-see children back at school
-ensure schools are safe environments
To support countries, @UNESCO, @UNICEF & @WHO updated school-related public health guidance for #COVID19.
I thank @unicefchief & @AAzoulay for their partnership & for joining our presser today. https://t.co/Bs6LIasQsJ pic.twitter.com/qQPFS7VF8X
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) September 15, 2020
“We are encouraging schools to be prioritised as societies reopen to ensure education continuity despite the potential risk of outbreaks,” said Mahamud.
“If we implement all the security measures to respond to those outbreaks, we will protect the vulnerable and the community as a whole.”