The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is urging governments to resume education for children everywhere, as it released new data showing that schools for over 168 million children have remained closed for almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help illustrate just how serious the global education crisis is, Unicef unveiled the “Pandemic Classroom” on Tuesday — an installation at the United Nations Headquarters in New York of a model classroom filled with 168 empty desks, where each desk represents one million children who have been unable to return to school.
The organization highlighted that schools in 14 countries around the world have remained mostly closed since March 2020 and into February 2021.
Most of these countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean, affecting nearly 98 million school children. Panama has kept its schools closed for the most days out of the 14 countries, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh, and Bolivia.
In a statement, Unicef executive director, Henrietta Fore highlighted that the world’s governments need to prioritize education.
"As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created,” she said. “With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price.”
"We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children,” she added. "No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritize them in reopening plans.”
Schools are more than just spaces for children to learn, and as a result, extended closures do not only affect a child’s education. Returning to school could mean a return to social interactions with peers, frequent daily meals for those who rely on school for nutrition, and access to health and immunization services. The longer schools stay closed, the longer children are deprived from these necessities — and even risk being forced into child marriage or child labor as a result of rising poverty.
The “Pandemic Classroom” installation is not only a visual representation of the world’s classrooms that have remained empty for almost a year, it is also a reminder of the important role that schools play for millions of children.
“This classroom represents the millions of centers of learning that have sat empty — many for almost the entire year. Behind each empty chair hangs an empty backpack — a placeholder for a child’s deferred potential,” said Fore.
“We do not want shuttered doors and closed buildings to obscure the fact that our children’s futures are being put on indefinite pause,” she continued. “This installation is a message to governments: we must prioritize reopening schools, and we must prioritize reopening them better than they were before.”
Resuming education for all children everywhere is part of Global Citizen’s Recovery Plan for the World campaign. Without immediate action, millions of children may never return to school after the pandemic. Take action with us here to help make sure that children are supported and to help resume learning for all.