March 18, 2020

Coronavirus school closures mean over ONE BILLION children and youth are now shut out of classrooms

Children - especially girls - are in danger of dropping out of education if they are shut out of schools for prolonged periods

Photo credit: UNICEF / Bindra

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

The pandemic has forced over 120 countries to shut down their education systems - on top of 258 million young people already not going to school in the long term.

NOTE: The statistics here were updated on March 20.

More than 120 countries in every corner of the world have shut down schools and universities or are planning to close them to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The United Nations said 124 countries have nationwide closures and others have localised shutdowns that together have impacted more than 1.25 BILLION children and youth from pre-primary to higher education - 73% of all enrolled learners. 

To put those numbers in perspective, before coronavirus struck, all the conflicts, natural disasters, poverty and discrimination across the globe were keeping 258 million children and youth out of primary and secondary school. Add in those numbers and 1.5 billion are currently being denied education.

"The global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education," said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

The agency said the effects could include:

  • Interrupted learning. When schools close, children and youth are deprived of opportunities for growth and development. Under-privileged learners with fewer educational opportunities beyond school are the hardest hit.
  • Nutrition. Many students rely on free or discounted meals provided at schools for food and healthy nutrition.
  • Dropout rates. It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen after closures. Dropout rates rise in protracted closures.

As the UN agency that is leading on the Sustainable Development Goal to deliver quality education for all, UNESCO is compiling the coronavirus statistics and providing urgent support to ensure that learning continues even when schools are shut.

The biggest schools shutdowns

(Number of children affected from pre-primary to upper secondary)

China 233 million, Pakistan 44.9m, Bangladesh 36.7m, Mexico 33m, Ethiopia 23.9m, Egypt 23.1m, Turkey 17.7m, Japan 16.5m, Iran 14.6m, Kenya 13.7m, South Africa 13.5m, France 12.9m, Thailand 12.9m, Germany 12.2m, Argentina 11m, Afghanistan 9.6m.

Countries with partial school closures include…

United States, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Philippines, Canada.

In these countries, school systems have been closed in certain states, areas and large cities most affected by coronavirus.

It announced the creation of a UNESCO-Covid-19 Emergency Task Force that will support national responses and share digital and traditional methods of learning, with a focus on the most vulnerable countries. That included a global video conference last week attended by 73 countries and many education ministers.

“We are entering uncharted territory and working with countries to find hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning,” said Azoulay. “As countries try to prepare their response, international cooperation is vital to share the most effective approaches and support students, teachers and families.”

She said that support must promote innovation and inclusion to ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind. A wider community of practice, including the private sector, will be established to enhance knowledge-sharing, peer learning and scaling up distance and open learning. 

Theirworld has been campaigning for years for every child in the world to receive a quality education. We led calls for Education Cannot Wait - the world’s first fund to deliver education in emergencies - to be set up in 2016. 

Without education for prolonged periods, young people's childhoods may be lost to child labour, early marriage, recruitment by armed groups, exploitation and discrimination. A child who is out of school for more than a year is unlikely to return - and girls are 2.5 times more likely to drop out of school than boys.

Health and safety are the urgent priority for children - but it is crucial that they don't stop learning

Photo credit: UN Photo

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet said: “During this unprecedented time, when health and safety is the top priority, we also need to ensure young people, especially the most vulnerable, do not stop learning.  

“High-tech and low-tech innovations, ranging from radio learning, games and distance learning, have been implemented in crises past and present. Governments should ensure that all young people have the continuity of an education as the consequences of a lost year of development and learning is far too high.”

In India - one of the countries with partial school closures so far - education charities say they are worried about girls dropping out. Almost one in four girls leave school before puberty and the female literacy rate is 66% compared to 80% for men.

In Delhi, the closure coincides with the holiday period. If it extends beyond March 31, then parents may be involved in lessons and some classes could be moved online, said Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor at the directorate of education.

He added: "We recognise that in government schools, many students are first-generation learners, so parents may not be able to help much. Nor does every student have access to a smartphone or tablet. So there may be challenges if the shutdown lasts longer."

About 54% of the global population - or 4.1 billion people - use the internet. But only one in five people in the least developed countries are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the UN's internet and telecoms agency.

Lack of online learning opportunities isn’t just a problem for the world’s poorest countries. In the United States, as many as 12 million school-aged children live in homes without broadband access, according to a 2017 US Congress report. 

The Los Angeles school district estimates that half of its students don't have computers or tablets and one in four have no internet access at home.

Among the countries that had been holding off on shutting down schools nationwide was the United Kingdom. But today the authorities in Wales, Scotland and England announced they were closing all schools indefinitely after Friday's lessons. Northern Ireland later announced its schools are closing immediately.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "The clearest guidance I can give is that schools and nurseries will not reopen after the Easter break. At this stage I cannot promise that they will reopen before the summer holidays."

English schools will close to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children, Education Minister Gavin Williamson announced. 

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