A record number of children and youth are not attending school or university because of temporary or indefinite closures mandated by governments in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19(link is external). As of 10 March, 32 countries in three continents have announced or implemented school and university closures. UNESCO is providing immediate support to countries, including solutions for inclusive distance learning.
Sixteen countries have shut schools nationwide, impacting almost 363.1 million children and youth. A further sixteen countries have implemented localized school closures to prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19. Should these countries also order nationwide school and university closures, it would disrupt the education of more than 500 million additional children and youth. Countries affected by COVID-19 are putting in place national responses in the form of learning platforms and other tools. A selection of country responses is available here.
Adverse consequences of school closures
School closures - even when temporary - carry high social and economic costs. The disruptions they cause touch people across communities, but their impact is particularly severe for disadvantaged boys and girls and their families.
Some of the reasons why school closures are so harmful are listed below. While the list is far from comprehensive, it helps clarify why school closures should matter to all of us.
- Interrupted learning: Schooling provides essential learning and when schools close, children and youth are deprived opportunities for growth and development. The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school.
- Nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted meals provided at schools for food and healthy nutrition. When schools close nutrition is comprised.
- Parents unprepared for distance and home schooling: When schools close parents are often asked to facilitate the learning of children at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.
- Unequal access to digital learning portals: Lack of access to technology or good internet connectivity is an obstacle to continued learning, especially for students from disadvantaged families.
- Gaps in childcare: In the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased influence of peer pressure and substance abuse.
- High economic costs: Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close in order to take care of their children, incurring wage loss in many instances and negatively impacting productivity.
- Unintended strain on health-care system: Women often represent a large share of health-care workers and often cannot attend work because of childcare obligations that result from school closures. This means that many medical professionals are not at the facilities where they are most needed during a health crisis.
- Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open: Localized school closures place burdens on schools as parents and officials redirect children to schools that are open.
- Dropout rates tend to rise: It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen after closures. This is especially true of protracted closures.
- Social isolation: Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools are closed, many children and youth miss out of on social contact that is essential to learning and development.
**UNESCO's support **
In response to school closures caused by COVID-19, UNESCO supports national education sectors to:
- Stop the outbreak
- Preserve stability and social cohesion
- Ensure the continuity of essential services in education
- Build capacity to prepare for future outbreaks
UNESCO recommends the use of distance learning programmes to limit the disruption of education. Open, distance and on-line learning responses can limit this disruption of education by:
- Maintaining connection with students, providing psychosocial support and avoiding isolation.
- Ensuring continuity of curriculum-based study.
- Facilitating learning through supplementary reading and educational materials.
UNESCO also proposes a list of digital and traditional technology learning solutions that can help support and preserve the continuity of learning. The curated tools have a wide reach, large user-base and evidence of impact and give different stakeholders options to consider during periods of school closure.