As head of UNICEF USA, I am painfully aware of the impacts of COVID-19 on children around the world. Children may not be most directly threatened by the virus, but they are the most severely impacted. For children, COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, it is a child rights crisis.
The impact of school closures on children is one example. Globally, school closures have disrupted the education of more than 1.5 billion children. For many of those kids, the impact goes beyond loss of learning. Vulnerable children lose critical nutrition from school-based nutrition programs, they lose important protection systems that detect and address instances of abuse, they lose access to psychosocial and mental health supports. In the past few months, call centers and shelters around the world have reported an increase in domestic violence. There has been a rise in children being abused and exploited online. Children and young people’s mental health suffers as they feel the weight of a stressful home life, poverty, isolation, fear of their family members getting ill, and how they are going to continue their studies at home.
Those challenges affect kids in the United States as well. Research shows that COVID-19 will likely exacerbate already significant achievement disparities for poor and minority students. In addition, I see in my own organization how closed schools affect parents and caregivers, who are struggling to work from home, care for kids and homeschool.
That is why UNICEF is asking leaders globally to consider reopening schools as fully and quickly as possible, keeping the best interests of children in mind as they make those decisions. UNICEF is not alone: U.S. pediatricians, teachers and school administrators share the goal of children returning to school this fall, in a way that is safe for students and teachers, recognizing that many school services cannot be replicated online.
Opening schools safely is paramount, to protect both children and teachers. Recent spikes in coronavirus cases and deaths prove that we are far from beating this pandemic. UNICEF and other global agencies issued an important set of guidelines on the safe reopening of schools that policymakers should consider.
Schools globally also need significant additional resources to begin to reopen while meeting guidelines for safety. That cost is a small price to pay to protect our children’s futures, compared to the enormous losses that children and economies will face from missing out on education. Outside of schools, we must ensure that vulnerable families have the education, nutrition, health and protection resources to both continue learning and keep children safe. Putting children first means finding the money to protect an entire generation of children.
I know our parents, teachers, school administrators and students all yearn to get back to “normal” and reopen schools. I also know that these are difficult decisions that have to be made by local leaders; there is no one right answer. UNICEF USA urges all local leaders to make sure they give children and young people themselves a meaningful voice in making those decisions.
For us at UNICEF USA, with supporters in communities across the country, our plea to local leaders is to open schools as much and as soon as feasible, with children’s voices and best interests in mind.