The world is experiencing "the largest disruption of education ever" as the COVID-19 pandemic forces schools to be shut down in more than 160 countries, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message on Tuesday.
The UN, along with various nonprofits, has called for world leaders to urgently invest in educational systems to protect the future potential and well-being of children. Guterres also announced a new global campaign called "Save Our Future" in collaboration with education partners and UN agencies.
"This announcement really helps ring the alarm bell on this issue," Emma Wagner, Save the Children’s senior education policy and advocacy advisor, told Global Citizen. "We are in such a huge education emergency and we currently don’t think that it’s getting the international and national attention that is needed."
Since it began, the pandemic has affected the education of more than 1.5 billion students through school closures and other disruptions. Although teachers have largely transitioned to remote learning, many students around the world lack access to the prerequisite technology and electricity needed to load Zoom lessons and online homework portals. In fact, half of the students out of school due to COVID-19 do not have access to a computer at home, according to UNESCO.
Guterres said that this dynamic could "waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities."
The UN’s new policy brief calls for action in four key areas. First, countries need to suppress transmission of the virus through containment measures so that they can safely reopen schools as soon as possible. Second, countries need to prioritize education in their national budgets and financing decisions, especially as the world enters a global recession.
Rather than cut spending on education, governments need to ensure students and teachers have the necessary resources to get through the school year.
"The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come," Guterres said.
The policy brief’s third call to action focuses on those who are most likely to be left behind. Even when lockdowns end, almost 10 million children may never return to school, primarily due to budget reductions and rising poverty, according to a recent report by Save the Children. Students with disabilities, those in minority or disadvantaged communities, as well as those who are displaced or refugees, will be particularly affected.
Wagner said governments have to ensure that groups most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 receive additional assistance.
"Governments do have to make different decisions based on priorities," Wagner said. "But we really argue that education should be one of the major priorities, that in this crisis education budgets shouldn’t be reduced."
As the impacts of the pandemic-induced recession affect the finances of families, many children may also be forced out of school and into labor markets.
Girls, who already experienced barriers to education prior to the pandemic, face higher rates of domestic violence, child marriage, and teen pregnancy during the lockdown. As a result, the policy brief calls for governments to aim for equity and inclusion by supporting girls and other marginalized groups.
Yasmine Sherif, director of Education Cannot Wait, notes that "access to an education is one of the very last hopes for any child and young person enduring a protracted crisis."
"We must put education of millions of crisis-affected girls and boys at the center of our efforts,” Sherif told Global Citizen. "If we fail to immediately protect their right to a quality education and the safety, hope, and opportunity it provides, post-crisis recovery will not take off, but will remain a mere wish."
The UN also urges the international community to use the current situation as an opportunity to reimagine education and find new ways to advance toward the goal of quality education for all.
"As the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, we need education — the great equalizer — more than ever," Guterres said. "We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future."