Covid-19 School Closures, Inaction Fuel Children’s Loss of Education

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A chalkboard with text and formulas in a secondary school classroom in the city of Mwanza, Tanzania.
© 2016 Elin Martinez/Human Rights Watch

“I feel like the earth has just stopped,” said Jae-kuk, a 14-year-old boy in South Korea, recounting how he felt when his school was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Céleste, a 15-year-old girl living in the Central African Republic, told Human Rights Watch, “It doesn’t do me any good to not go to school. I feel like something in me is missing.”

This year’s International Day of Education, celebrated on January 24, focuses on recovering and revitalizing education for the “Covid-19 generation”– hundreds of millions of children like Jae-kuk and Céleste whose education has been interrupted because of government-ordered school closures.

By April last year, the pandemic had disrupted education for around 90 percent of the world’s school-age children. An unprecedented 1.4 billion students were shut out of schools in 192 countries. More than a third have no access to remote education because they have not been provided with the tools or support to continue learning from home. Throughout the pandemic, many governments have not taken sufficient steps to ensure that children, including students, have access to adequate food and sanitation, or services such as electricity and affordable internet necessary to enable them to participate in education remotely. This has reinforced, and in many countries exacerbated, inequalities in many children’s access to and enjoyment of quality education.  

United Nations agencies now also warn about very high numbers of children who have not returned to school. This worrying development should not be surprising. Governments knew who would be worst-affected by school closures, and the programs that were necessary to ensure children remained engaged in formal education. Human Rights Watch research shows that many children have suffered because of the absence of these mitigating strategies.

Last month, UNICEF urged governments to only consider closing schools as a measure of last resort and only when all other measures have been exhausted. Yet in January at least 30 governments across the globe have ordered a fresh round of blanket school closures. Governments cannot afford to repeat last year’s mistakes and fuel further education loss and disruptions to children’s lives. To safeguard education, all governments should place education at the center of their recovery plans and focus on including every child this year, and in the years to come.