With 23 countries yet to fully reopen schools, education risks becoming ‘greatest divider’ as COVID-19 pandemic enters third year – UNICEF

Number of children dropping out of school poised to increase, emerging evidence shows

30 March 2022
Bangladesh children in school.

NEW YORK/DHAKA, 30 March 2022 – As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, 23 countries – home to nearly 405 million schoolchildren – are yet to fully open schools, with many schoolchildren at risk of dropping out, according to a new UNICEF reported released today. In Bangladesh, one of the countries featured in the report, children endured one of the longest school closures in the world, missing almost 18 months of in-person education.

Are children really learning? features country-level data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures on children, as well as an updated analysis of the state of children’s learning before the pandemic. It points out that 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling over the past 2 years. This amounts to 2 trillion hours of lost in-person learning globally.   

School closures in Bangladesh from March 2020 to September 2021, and again in February 2022, have not only disrupted the education of around 37 million children. They have also exacerbated worrying gaps in basic literacy and numeracy skills which existed before the pandemic began.

According to the report, only 34 per cent of children in Grade 3 in Bangladesh have foundational reading skills, and only 18 per cent have foundational numeracy skills. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are even worse off.

The report also highlighted striking differences in the reading skills of children who dropped out of school in the past year and those who continued learning. Only 29 per cent of the children who dropped out of school within the past year have foundational reading skills, compared with 39 per cent of children who stayed in school.

“Even before the pandemic, children in Bangladesh faced education hurdles. Children in Bangladesh need full access to flexible and remedial learning to help make up for the time lost,” said Mr. Sheldon Yett, UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh. “A failure to take action now puts the well-being of children and their families at risk for generations to come,” he added.

“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers. When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “This rising inequality in access to learning means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”

In addition to data on learning loss, the report points to emerging evidence that shows many children did not return to school when their classrooms reopened. Data from Liberia show 43 per cent of students in public schools did not return when schools reopened in December 2020. The number of out-of-school children in South Africa tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021. In Uganda, around 1 in 10 schoolchildren did not report back to school in January 2022 after schools were closed for two years. In Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48 per cent, from 6.4 per cent to 9.5 per cent between 2020 and 2021. In Kenya, a survey of 4,000 adolescents aged 10-19 years found that 16 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys did not return when schools reopened.

Out-of-school children are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized children in society. They are the least likely to be able to read, write or do basic math, and are cut off from the safety net that schools provide, which puts them at an increased risk of exploitation and a lifetime of poverty and deprivation.

The report highlights that while out-of-school children suffer the greatest loss, pre-pandemic data from 32 countries and territories show a desperately poor level of learning, a situation that has likely been exacerbated by the scale of learning lost to the pandemic. In the countries analyzed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills.

In many cases, there is no guarantee that schoolchildren learned the basics at all. In the 32 countries and territories examined, a quarter of Grade 8 schoolchildren – around 14 years old – did not have foundational reading skills and more than half did not have numeracy skills expected of a Grade 2 student, around 7 years old.

“Even before the pandemic, the most marginalized children were being left behind. As the pandemic enters its third year, we can’t afford to go back to “normal.” We need a new normal: getting children into classrooms, assessing where they are in their learning, providing them with the intensive support they need to recover what they’ve missed, and ensuring that teachers have the training and learning resources they need. The stakes are too high to do anything less,” said Russell.


Notes to editors: 

Sources: UNESCO UIS, Uganda National Examination Board Study (2021)

Out-of-school children are defined as children of primary- and secondary school-age not enrolled in education. This is different from the schoolchildren whose schools remain partially or fully closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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Read the report here

Read the joint statement, “Less than half of countries are implementing learning recovery strategies at scale to help children catch up,” by UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, UNICEF Director of Education, and World Bank Global Director for Education here

For further information about the learning crisis, click here

Media contacts

Georgina Thompson
Tel: +1 917 238 1559
Moyukh Mahtab
UNICEF Bangladesh
Tel: +8801685023541


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. 

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