At least 168 million children worldwide have missed almost an entire year of school, Unicef has warned, amid concerns that restrictions to tame the coronavirus have triggered a “catastrophic education emergency”.
According to a report published on Wednesday, schools in 14 countries – the majority in Latin America and the Caribbean – have remained largely closed since March 2020.
Overall, children in Panama have missed the most days in the classroom, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh and Bolivia.
“We do not want shuttered doors and closed buildings to obscure the fact that our children’s futures are being put on indefinite pause,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef. “No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans.”
On top of the 168 million children who have barely been in the classroom for the last year, Unicef estimates roughly 214 million pupils have missed more than three-quarters of in-person teaching, as restrictions to contain Covid-19 have triggered widespread school closures. This is equivalent to one in seven children internationally.
There are growing concerns that the poorest children with fewest resources will be left behind as they are unable to access remote learning.
Evidence from previous epidemics, most notably the world’s worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016, also suggests that thousands of children will never return to the classroom. It is likely that many will be pushed into child labour, while girls are at risk of early marriage.
“As we approach the one-year mark of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created,” Ms Fore added. “With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalised paying the heaviest price.
“We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children,” she said.
In a separate analysis, also published on Tuesday, Unicef added that 332 million children globally have lived under required or recommended nationwide stay-at-home policies for at least nine months due to Covid-19.
There are growing concerns this is putting both their mental and physical health at risk. Last week, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK warned that children are at risk of “permanent scarring” due to school closures and reduced social contact.