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"Human history," H.G. Wells wrote in 1920, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."
The stakes of this race have never been higher: At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns earlier this year, more than 90 percent of the world's children and young people— around 1.6 billion — were out of school. This unprecedented disruption of education has upended lives, particularly in the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, and threatens to roll back generations of progress.
Even as some schools have begun to cautiously reopen and others are connecting with students via various forms of remote instruction, some 25 million children around the world are in danger of never returning to the classroom, UNICEF Chief of Education Robert Jenkins warns in a new three-part podcast series, "Learning to Overcome."
25 million children around the world may never resume their educations — unless we act now to help them get back to learning
Produced by UNICEF and Imaginable Futures, a philanthropic investment firm focused on learning and a venture of The Omidyar Group, "Learning to Overcome" brings together educators, innovators and entrepreneurs to discuss strategies for ensuring equitable access to quality remote learning and supporting children's well-being during the pandemic.
In episode three, "Academics Aren't Enough: Nurturing Social-Emotional Learning in Homes and Classrooms," which launches on October 5, Jenkins outlines some of the ways UNICEF is tailoring remote learning solutions to meet the educational, social and emotional needs of students growing up in a variety of circumstances. NPR veteran Gwen Thompkins moderates the conversation between Jenkins and human rights activist Leslee Udwin, CEO and founder of Think Equal, an education nonprofit.
From the early days of the pandemic, "It was all hands on deck to work with governments and partners to enable children to continue to learn," Jenkins recalls. That includes a range of interventions, from rolling out I.T.-enabled platforms like the Learning Passport to access world-class learning opportunities all the way down to low-tech solutions, supporting teachers and governments to deliver learning materials, textbooks, paper and pens for children to use at home while they receive instruction via radio or television.
From high-tech to low-tech, UNICEF is finding ways to reach children with the services they need during the pandemic
Finding the right modes of delivering education services is just one part of the equation, as Udwin points out, citing the need to address children's holistic needs and to counter the rise of stress and violence in the home during the pandemic.
"This is about giving all children the right to a foundation for positive outcomes in life," she says. "Covid has come along and cracked open the walls and there's now a chink of light that is both defining the darkness that we have lived in and continue to live in. And this is a chance to grasp that light and turn it into something meaningful."
UNICEF is training teachers to support the mental health of their students
The most effective ways to help children stay emotionally healthy, according to Jenkins, are training teachers to support the mental health of their students, in person or remotely, and engaging with parents on how they can help their children return to school and plan for that return.
"Children take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives, including their parents and teachers," says Jenkins. "So it's important for all of us as parents and teachers to work together to engage children and support their social and emotional well-being."
The pandemic has put incredible stress on families around the world, but children are resilient, says Jenkins. With the right support, "Children can bounce back."
Top photo: After several months of school closures due to coronavirus, Mauritanian students in their final year of elementary school were able to take their exams with preventive measures in place, including mask wearing and a limited number of students per table. © UNICEF/UNI372357/Pouget