11 million girls may never return to school after the coronavirus pandemic, the UN warns
- Countries must prioritize safe reopenings of schools in order to prevent devastating long-term consequences, global leaders said Tuesday.
- The coronavirus has already damaged kids' well-being, with about 11 million girls projected never to return, putting them at risk for early pregnancy, abuse, and marriage.
- The pandemic's effect on schooling has hurt disadvantaged young people most, with about a third of the world's children unable to learn remotely.
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The coronavirus shut down schools all over the world, and about half of the globe's students have yet to return.
The consequences are startling and potentially long-lasting, especially for girls and young people in disadvantaged communities, world leaders said at a media briefing hosted by the World Health Organization on Tuesday.
"The longer schools remained closed, the more damaging the consequences, especially for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who in addition to learning, rely on school for health or safety, and sometimes for nutrition," Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said.
She and others, including Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, and Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, emphasized that countries must prioritize school reopenings, and must do so safely. The three organization released new guidance on how to do so September 14.
"Given the devastating consequences on children, youth, and our societies as a whole, the decision to close schools should be a last resort, temporary, and only at a local level in areas with intense transmission," Tedros said.
11 million girls may never return to school
Azoulay said 11 million girls around the world are at risk for never returning to school, a projection informed by how the Ebola crisis affected young people's education, particularly in African countries hit hardest by the outbreak.
As schools closed then, kids, and mostly girls, weren't able to learn as well or at all at home since their responsibilities shifted to caring for the home and family, and making money.
If the coronavirus leads to a similar phenomenon, gender gaps in education will widen and girls will be at higher risk of sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and forced marriage, a report from UNESCO warns.
24 million children are projected to drop out of school for good due to the pandemic
Disparities in remote learning opportunities can have long-term, world-wide consequences too. About a third of the world's children were without that option when schools closed, UNICEF data shows.
"The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is nothing short of a global education emergency," Fore said.
School closures put kids at higher risk for physical and emotional violence, mental health issues, child labor, sexual abuse, and lifelong poverty, she said.
"For the most marginalized, missing out on school, even if only for a few weeks, can lead to negative outcomes that can last a lifetime," Fore said, since it can mean missing out on key vaccines, nutrition, and a safe environment to spend to the day.
She said at least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school permanently due to COVID-19, and urged governments to prioritize the safe reopening of schools using the organizations' new guidelines.
Many countries have already done so, she said, by, for example, spacing out desks, teaching outside, and implementing a "blended" model where some work is done remotely and some in person.
"Before the pandemic, the world was facing a learning crisis in terms of both access to and quality of education for every child," Fore said. "If we don't take action now together, the crisis will only deepen, and children will pay the highest price of all."
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