World leaders confront COVID’s impact on education ahead of U.N. General Assembly

With school disruptions caused by COVID throwing back children around the world, activists Monday implored world leaders to prioritize school systems and restore education budgets that were cut when the pandemic broke out.

The Summit on Transforming Education, held ahead of the annual Conference of Heads of State and Government at the UN General Assembly, should elicit commitments from the nations of the world to ensure children everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States are not too falling far behind .

“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping that the voice of a young girl who was bulleted while campaigning for her education would be heard,” said Malala Yousafzai, a UN peace envoy. “On this day, countries, businesses and civil society pledged to work together to see every child in school by 2030. It is heartbreaking that halfway through this target date we are faced with an education emergency.”

Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was more explicit. “We demand that you take responsibility,” Odebode said before the general assembly. “We will not stop until every person in every village and upland has access to education.”

The percentage of 10-year-old children in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read a simple story has risen to an estimated 70 percent — a 13 percentage-point increase since before the pandemic closed classrooms, according to a report by the World Bank, UNESCO UNICEF.

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Will world leaders do enough to help their youngest citizens learn to read and acquire the other skills they need to be successful? It will require addressing systemic issues that existed before the pandemic, dignitaries and students say. Countries need to increase spending, change policies to improve access for girls and students with disabilities, and modernize teaching to use critical thinking instead of memorization.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to radically transform education,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters ahead of the Education Summit at the UN Headquarters in New York. “We owe it to the next generation if we don’t want to see a generation of misfits emerge.”

When COVID-19 closed schools around the world in spring 2020, many children simply stopped learning—some for months, others for longer. For many, there was no distance learning. According to a December 2020 study by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union, more than 800 million young people around the world did not have internet access at home.

Recent studies underline the lasting effects of the pandemic. “The learning losses from COVID have been enormous,” Mohammed said.

The length of time school buildings have been closed due to COVID-19 has varied widely around the world. In extreme cases, schools in parts of Latin America and South Asia were closed for 75 weeks or more, according to UNESCO. In parts of the United States, including cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, schools operated remotely from March 2020 through most of the 2020-2021 school year.

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There was also wide variation in the availability and quality of distance learning. In some countries, students stuck at home had access to paper packets or radio and television programs, or almost nothing. Others had access to the internet and video conferencing with teachers.

According to analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, estimated learning delays ranged, on average, from over 12 school months for students in South Asia to less than four for students in Europe and Central Asia.

Most of the world’s classrooms are now open again, but 244 million school-age children are still out of school, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said during the summit, citing data from the UN education agency. Most of these children – 98 million – live in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Central and South Asia, to remind of the deep inequalities that exist in access to education, she said.

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In many places, money is the most important ingredient in containing the crisis, if not even meeting the lofty goal of leaders to “transform education”. “Funding for education must be a priority for governments,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly on Monday. “It is the most important investment a country can make in its people and its future.”

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According to a report by UNESCO and Global Education Monitoring, affluent countries invest an average of US$8,000 per year per school-age child, compared to upper-middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, who invest US$1,000 per year. Lower-income countries provide about $300 per year and some poor countries only $50 per year per student.

Rich countries should also increase spending, Guterres said. Germany, France and the United States have provided the most international aid to education in low-income countries in recent years, according to a 2021 report by the Center for Global Development. According to the report, which is based on the latest available data, the United States invested more than $1.5 billion annually from 2017 to 2019.

As senior dignitaries urged individual countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, it was some of the summit’s youngest participants who expressed the greatest skepticism about any prospect of change. After all, the UN lacks any authority to force countries to spend more on education.

Yousafzai called on countries to spend 20 percent of their budget on education. “Most of you know exactly what to do,” she said. “You must not make small, stingy, and short-term commitments.”

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