The finding is among the results of a survey conducted by the UN educational and cultural agency, UNESCO; the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF; the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Meanwhile, only one-third of countries, mainly high-income nations, are taking steps to measure learning losses at the primary and lower-secondary levels.
“Measuring learning loss is a critical first step towards mitigating its consequences. It is vital that countries invest in assessing the magnitude of such losses to implement the appropriate remedial measures,” said Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
Survey reveals risks
In total, 142 countries participated in the survey, which covers the period from February to May of this year, and spans four levels of education, from pre-primary through upper secondary schooling.
Fewer than a third of low and middle-income countries reported that all students had returned to in-person schooling, heightening the risk of learning loss as well as drop-out.
However, most countries have encouraged students to return to school through measures such as community engagement, school-based tracking, financial incentives and improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene services.
The survey further documents how countries are addressing the challenge of reopening schools and deploying distance learning strategies.
“Remote learning has been a lifeline for many children around the world during school closures. But for the most vulnerable, even this was out of reach. It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom now,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Chief of Education.
“But we cannot stop there; reopening better means implementing remedial programmes to help students get back on track, and ensuring that we prioritize girls and vulnerable children in all our efforts.”
Reopening schools cannot wait
The report was released during the Ministerial segment of UNESCO’s Global Education Meeting on Tuesday, held on the margins of the annual UN High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development.
Ahead of the meeting, the agency’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, issued a statement underlining why reopening schools cannot wait.
With classrooms still shuttered in 19 countries, affecting more than 156 million students, they warned that the losses children and young people incur from missing out on school may never be recouped.
“From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health,” they said.
“The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages.”
Mortgaging the future
School closures also affect parents and caregivers, they added, as having to keep children at home has forced some parents to leave their jobs, especially in countries that have limited or no family leave policies.
The UN officials urged decisionmakers and governments to prioritize the safe reopening of schools to avoid “a generational catastrophe”.
They pointed to evidence which shows that schools are not among the main drivers of coronavirus transmission, and the decision on whether to open or close them should be based on risk analysis and the “epidemiological considerations” in communities where they are located.
“Closing schools mortgages our future for unclear benefits to our present,” they said. “We must prioritize better. We can reopen schools safely, and we must.”