A child's first day of school – a landmark moment for the youngest students and their parents around the world – has been delayed due to COVID-19 for an estimated 140 million young minds, UNICEF said in a new analysis released as summer break comes to end in many parts of the world.
For an estimated eight million of these students, the wait for their first day of in-person learning has been over a year and counting, as they live in places where schools have been closed throughout the pandemic. This number includes almost four million first-time learners from Bangladesh, where educational institutions have been closed since 17 March 2020 – the second-longest COVID-19 school closure in the world.
"As classes resume in many parts of the world, millions of first graders have been waiting to see the inside of a classroom for over a year. Millions more may not see one at all this school term. For the most vulnerable, their risk of never stepping into a classroom in their lifetime is skyrocketing."
The first grade sets up the building blocks for all future learning, with introductions to reading, writing, and math. It's also a period when in-person learning helps children gain independence, adapt to new routines, and develop meaningful relationships with teachers and students. In-person learning also enables teachers to identify and address learning delays, mental health issues, and abuse that could negatively affect children’s well-being.
In 2020, schools globally were fully closed for an average of 79 teaching days. However, for 168 million students, after the pandemic began, schools were shuttered for nearly the entire year. Even now, many children are facing an unprecedented second year of disruption to their education. The associated consequences of school closures – learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of drop out, child labour, and child marriage – will be felt by many children, especially the youngest learners in critical development stages.
While countries worldwide are taking some actions to provide remote learning, at least 29 per cent of primary students are not being reached. In addition to lack of assets for remote learning, the youngest children may not be able to participate due to a lack of support using the technology, a poor learning environment, pressure to do household chores, or being forced to work.
In Bangladesh, prolonged closure of educational institutions throughout the pandemic has affected over 40 million students from the pre-primary to the higher education level. The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return as they face increased risks of violence, child labour and child marriage.
“Marginalized children are suffering the heaviest losses which push them further into poverty and inequalities now and in the future. It is crucial that we prioritize a safe reopening of schools and invest in remediation of learning losses for those most affected. Our decisions today will influence these children throughout their entire lives,” he added.
Studies have shown that positive school experiences during this transition period are a predictor of children’s future social, emotional and educational outcomes. At the same time, children who fall behind in learning during the early years often stay behind for the remaining time they spend in school, and the gap widens over the years. The number of years of education a child receives also directly affects their future earnings.
Unless mitigation measures are implemented, the World Bank estimates a loss of $10 trillion in earnings over time for this entire generation of students. Existing evidence shows the cost of addressing learning gaps are lower and more effective when they are tackled earlier, and that investments in education support economic recovery, growth and prosperity.
UNICEF urges governments to reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, and to provide a comprehensive recovery response for students.
Together with the World Bank and UNESCO, UNICEF is calling for governments to focus on three key priorities for recovery in schools: Targeted programmes to bring all children and youth back in school where they can access tailored services to meet their learning, health, psychosocial well-being, and other needs; Effective remedial learning to help students catch up on lost learning; Support for teachers to address learning losses and incorporate digital technology into their teaching.
"Your first day of school is a day of hope and possibility – a day for getting off to a good start. But not all children are getting off to a good start. Some children are not even starting at all," said Fore." We must reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, and we must immediately address the gaps in learning this pandemic has already created. Unless we do, some children may never catch up."
UNICEF Bangladesh works with the Government of Bangladesh towards safely reopening schools. This includes development of guidelines, including on safety measures such as children and teachers masking up and washing their hands with soap and water in school. UNICEF also helps communicate with children, parents and educators to build their confidence that it is possible to return to school safely.
In the following weeks, UNICEF will continue to mobilize its partners and the public to prevent this education crisis from becoming an education catastrophe. Online and offline campaigns will rally world leaders, teachers, and parents around a common cause: reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible. The future of the world’s most vulnerable children is at stake.