'A Child's Right to an Education Does Not Change Because of a Crisis'

April 8, 2020

With schools closed in 191 countries to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, UNICEF is working with governments and partners around the world to make sure students keep learning and continue to receive the care and services they need to thrive.

In an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, 191 countries have closed schools nationwide, disrupting the educations of more than 1.5 billion — approximately nine out of ten — students around the world. It's an unprecedented event, one that could have long-term consequences if children's needs are not given top priority by governments worldwide. 

During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, schools were shut down for up to nine months, affecting 5 million children. This not only interrupted their educations — it also cut off access to essential services such as school meal programs, resulted in an increase in sexual assault and exploitation, and greatly restricted normal social interactions that are crucial to a child's development. Many children never returned to the classroom once schools re-opened.

According to Robert Jenkins, UNICEF's Global Chief of Education, "Unless we collectively act now to protect children's education, societies and economies will feel the burden long after we've beaten COVID-19. In the most vulnerable communities, the impact will span generations." 

"Unless we collectively act now to protect children's education, societies and economies will feel the burden long after we've beaten COVID-19. In the most vulnerable communities, the impact will span generations." — Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Chief of Education

Taking lessons learned from the Ebola crisis and other humanitarian emergencies that have resulted in mass school closures, UNICEF's team of 800 education professionals are working with governments and partners in 152 low- and middle-income countries and territories to give children alternative ways to learn, allocating additional funding to accelerate the transition and scale up support. Many school districts with internet access are shifting to online instruction, with teachers giving lessons and assigning coursework remotely.

In his empty classroom in Hong Kong on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung records a video lesson for his students, who have had their classes suspended due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Schools there have been shut since early February, with the closure now set to last until after Easter. Many teachers are turning to conference call applications to interact with students, but that requires reliable Wi-Fi access and computer literacy. © UNICEF/UNI313685/Lawrence/AFP

For the 364 million children without access to the internet, online learning is not an option. Broadcasting lessons on the radio and television helps bridge the digital divide, allowing continued access to education for refugee, migrant and displaced children as well as those from low-income families, remote regions and indigenous communities. UNICEF is also adapting materials so children with disabilities can keep learning, providing closed captions, sign language interpretation and large print resources.

To reach children without internet access, UNICEF is supporting radio and television education programs

A TV classroom initiative in Macedonia is a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Science, the Bureau for Development of Education, UNICEF, children's television producer OXO and national broadcaster Macedonian Radio and Television. The program was introduced a week after schools closed in Macedonia and engages volunteer teachers, employing all languages of instruction used in public education in North Macedonia including Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Serbian and Bosnian.

Evidence of what works in remote learning for the most vulnerable groups will be documented and used to support long-term system changes to ensure that every child gets a quality education. UNICEF is not only working to meet the needs of children who were in school pre-emergency, but expanding this to target and mobilize the enrollment of children that were previously out of school, providing access to accelerated learning and employing tools that reduce social and economic barriers to attendance. 

Konstantin, 12, is learning at home in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, as he follows the TV classroom program broadcast on national television. Like all students in North Macedonia, he has been home since March 10, 2020, when the government temporarily closed schools to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. © UNICEF/UNI314061/Nikolovski

Schools provide more than education. They also create a secure environment for children, giving them a comforting sense of routine, the opportunity to form relationships with classmates, and nutrition and health services they might not get otherwise. The World Food Program estimates that more than 368 million children are missing out on school meals during the pandemic, up from 300 million in mid-March.  

Finding new ways to help students connect, stay safe and get the support services they need

Voices of Youth, an organization set up by UNICEF to help children and adolescents around the world exchange knowledge and ideas, encourages young people to post about how they are feeling and how they are coping while schools are closed during the pandemic, offering them a chance to share their experiences with their peers.

UNICEF is also working to advise parents on how to meet their children's needs during this uncertain time, offering guidance on how to stay informed, encouraging both online and offline recreational activities and providing tips on how to have open conversations about economic, emotional and academic concerns related to COVID-19.

School children in Nairobi, Kenya pack their books to take home on March 16, 2020, following a directive from the government suspending learning in all of the country's educational institutions as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Kenya's first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on March 13. © UNICEF/UNI313684/Maina/AFP

In an interview with Education Cannot Wait, a global fund dedicated to reaching all children affected by crisis with safe, free, quality education, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said, "A child's right to an education does not change because of a crisis. In fact, it is just as important as every other need, and can even improve outcomes in other sectors." 

UNICEF and partners have allocated funding to 152 countries and territories during this crisis, driving education response and recovery interventions. Help UNICEF be there for vulnerable children around the world. Your support is urgently needed.

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Read more about how UNICEF is working to keep every student learning during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Top photo: Elementary school student Arkan, 9, (right) studying at home while keeping a distance from his sister, Siwi, during the COVID-19 outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia on March 29, 2020. © UNICEF/UNI318983/Wilander