Getting Students Back to School Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic

October 14, 2020

UNICEF and partners are working to keep students learning during the pandemic, offering guidance on how to reopen schools safely and developing a range of remote learning solutions for those studying from home.  

Donate Now

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown earlier this year, more than 90 percent of the world's children and young people — around 1.6 billion — were out of school. From preschools all the way up to colleges and vocational programs, schools in 188 countries were shuttered, an unprecedented disruption in the history of education.

Today, schools are still completely closed in 34 countries, affecting more than 577 million students.

This UNESCO map shows the current extent of school closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of October 13, 2020, more than 577 million students — 33 percent of total enrolled learners — are still affected by shuttered schools worldwide. Schools remain completely closed in 34 countries. At the height of the lockdown earlier this year, around 1.6 billion students in 188 countries were out school due to the pandemic. © UNESCO

UNICEF's team of more than 800 education professionals are working with governments and partners in 152 low- and middle-income countries and territories to keep children learning during the pandemic, offering guidance on how to reopen and operate schools safely and, for students who must learn at home for the time being, tailoring remote-learning solutions to meet their needs, including radio, television, mobile phone and online instruction.

Students follow virus prevention protocols upon returning to school in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The Framework for Reopening Schools, prepared by UNICEF, the World Bank, UNESCO and the World Food Program, offers guidance on handwashing, mask wearing, social distancing, ventilation and other safety measures school districts can take to make schools safe for in-person learning. © UNICEF/UNI355644/Kodikara/AFP

School is where many students get their only meal of the day, and a safe haven from violence, exploitation and abuse

Impoverished, marginalized children in low- and middle-income countries rely on school for many things besides learning. It's the place to go for a nutritious meal, for health services, for clean water and sanitation. UNICEF and the World Food Program are tracking children in need of school meals through an online School Meals map; currently 304 million children are missing out on meals at school globally.

Many children in high-income countries count on school lunches as well. In 2018 in the U.S., nearly 30 million children were provided free or low-cost daily midday meals through the National School Lunch Program

For the most vulnerable kids, school is often a safe haven from violence and exploitation. School closures during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa led to increased rates of sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.

Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labor and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school.

“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labor and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return. Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”

Some 25 million children around the world are in danger of never returning to the classroom, warns UNICEF Chief of Education Robert Jenkins. 

Students happy to be back in school peer out from a classrom window at Luwambaza primary school in Malawi on September 24, 2020. © UNICEF/UNI386351/

Schools should reopen as soon as possible, but only when it is safe for students, teachers and staff

Decisions on when and how to reopen schools depend on the unique circumstances of each community. UNICEF, the World Bank, UNESCO and the World Food Program's Framework for Reopening Schools urges local and national authorities to carefully weigh all risks and benefits, and to consider socio-economic factors as well as education and health impacts, always keeping the needs of children front and center.  

On April 15, 2020 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Zlata, 7, works on schoolwork from home, with all schools in the country closed as part of measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Ukraine, Kosovo and Timor-Leste are the first three countries to roll out an online national curriculum through the Learning Passport, a partnership between UNICEF, Microsoft Corp. and the University of Cambridge. © UNICEF/UNI321764/Filippov

Bridging the digital divide

Many schools have turned to online learning to connect with students, but when COVID-19 forced schools to close earlier this year, at least 463 million children worldwide were unable to access remote learning, according to a recent UNICEF report. 

Even before the appearance of COVID-19, UNICEF recognized the need to address education for vulnerable children and digital exclusion. In 2019, UNICEF and partner ITU (the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency) launched Giga, a global initiative to connect every school — and every student — to the internet by 2030. 

Working in partnership with governments, Giga is mapping the connectivity demand, using schools as a base point, and identifying where there are connectivity gaps. This information, combined with existing ITU mapping data, allows countries to take stock of their existing infrastructure and assess appropriate solutions for connecting schools. More than 800,000 schools in 30 countries have been mapped through Project Connect, a mapping and connectivity monitoring platform.

In partnership with Microsoft Corp. and the University of Cambridge, UNICEF developed the Learning Passport, an online learning platform that provides key resources to teachers and educators. Ukraine, Kosovo and Timor-Leste were the first countries to roll out their online curriculum through the platform.  

Primary schools in Rwanda are slated to reopen in November. While they're closed, 11-year-old Kevin studies at home, listening to his Primary 5 lessons on the radio every day. In collaboration with various development partners and the Rwanda Education Board, UNICEF is supporting the production and airing of new radio lessons to keep children learning. © UNICEF/UNI319836/Kanobana

Low-tech and no-tech strategies help students continue remote learning

UNICEF is supporting a range of tools to deliver remote learning, depending on the context. They range from low- to no-tech options such as delivering paper-based learning materials to children at home and supporting the creation of education programs on radio and TV.

In Bangladesh, UNICEF is helping the government share learning content over TV, radio, mobile phone and internet platforms. In Paraguay, UNICEF developed video and audio content for children up to age 6. In Somalia, lessons are being broadcast over the radio, and in Mongolia, UNICEF helped produce TV lessons in local languages Tuvan and Kazakh.

In the Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, 9-year-old Precious (left), is home-schooled by her mother, Mary, while local schools are closed. The two spend most mornings watching lessons. © UNICEF/UNI336737/Translieu/Nyaberi

UNICEF tips for parents and educators on supporting remote learning

UNICEF offers a host of helpful tips for parents and educators. As Jenkins has pointed out, the challenge is to determine the right learning tool for each context. Live instruction delivered remotely is often not possible, and requires fixed scheduling. Families struggling to adapt to the realities of life during a pandemic need flexibility now more than ever. “The key is to start with the learning outcome and then work backwards,” Jenkins told UNICEF USA.

UNICEF advises parents to support children’s learning at home by creating a routine around school and schoolwork. Structure helps kids who are feeling restless or who are having trouble focusing. Parents can make learning playful by incorporating it into everyday activities like cooking, family reading time and games. “Take your time,” Jenkins says. “Have open conversations. Encourage your child to ask questions and express their feelings.”

The pandemic has put incredible stress on families around the world, but children are resilient, Jenkins adds. With the right support, he says, "children can bounce back."

Help UNICEF continue its global efforts to support the safe reopening of schools and improve access to education for the world's most vulnerable children. Your contribution can make a difference. Please donate.

Top photo: Students at Preah Norodom Primary School, Phnom Penh, Cambodia during their second day of school reopening, September 7, 2020. UNICEF has partnered with Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to ensure a safe reopening for every school in the country. © UNICEF/UNI368182/Lychheang