23 countries yet to fully reopen schools after Covid closings: UNICEF

As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, 23 countries – home to around 405 million schoolchildren – are yet to fully reopen schools, with many schoolchildren at risk of dropping out, the UN Children`s Fund (UNICEF) has said.

Over the past two years, nearly 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling, amounting to 2 trillion hours of lost learning, UNICEF said in a report called “Are children really learning?”, Xinhua news agency reported.

“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers. When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell in a press release.

“This rising inequality in access to learning means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”

In addition to data on learning loss, the report points to emerging evidence that shows many children did not return to school when their classrooms reopened.

Data from Liberia show 43 per cent of students in public schools did not return when schools reopened in December 2020. The number of out-of-school children in South Africa tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021.

“In Uganda, around 1 in 10 schoolchildren did not report back to school in January 2022 after schools were closed for two years. In Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48 per cent between 2020 and 2021. In Kenya, a survey of 4,000 adolescents aged 10-19 years found that 16 per cent of girls and 8 percent of boys did not return when schools reopened,” says the report.

“Out-of-school children are some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children in society. They are the least likely to be able to read, write or do basic math, and are cut off from the safety net that schools provide, which puts them at an increased risk of exploitation and a lifetime of poverty and deprivation.”

The report highlights that while out-of-school children suffer the most significant loss, pre-pandemic data from 32 countries and territories show a desperately poor level of learning, a situation likely exacerbated by the scale of learning lost to the pandemic.

In the countries analysed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills, says the report.

In many cases, there is no guarantee that schoolchildren learned the basics at all. In the 32 countries and territories examined, a quarter of Grade-8 schoolchildren did not have foundational reading skills and more than half did not have numeracy skills expected of a Grade-2 student, it says.

“Even before the pandemic, the most marginalized children were being left behind. As the pandemic enters its third year, we can`t afford to go back to `normal.` We need a new normal: getting children into classrooms, assessing where they are in their learning, providing them with the intensive support they need to recover what they`ve missed, and ensuring that teachers have the training and learning resources they need. The stakes are too high to do anything less,” said Russell.