Prioritizing safe school reopening for children and their future

A safe and equitable return to school and bridging learning gaps for all children will be essential for pandemic recovery and long-term resilience

Afshan Khan, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia
A boy and a girl are participating in the class.
UNICEF Armenia/2020/Biayna Mahari
21 May 2021

In the spring of 2020, the World Bank predicted that school closures lasting 5 months could result in a loss of 0.6 years of schooling and equate to close to 900 USD in yearly earnings[i]. In Europe and Central Asia, we have now surpassed this: On average, education has been disrupted for a total of 25 weeks across Europe and Central Asia, with full school closures lasting an average of 13 weeks and partial school closures an average of 12 weeks. In many countries, however, the duration of education disruption has been much longer: Children have been unable to participate fully in face-to-face learning for as long as 38 and 43 weeks in some countries.

Low- and middle-income countries in Europe and Central Asia have had full or partial school closures for 5 and a half weeks longer, on average, than high-income countries in the region[ii]. In these low- and middle-income countries alone where UNICEF is programming, 24.3 million primary- to upper-secondary aged children are currently still affected by school closures.

The calculation of the predicted loss is based on the assumption that schools reopen smoothly and that the transition back to face-to-face schooling allows learning to recommence where it left off. This is not the case, however, and is instead overly optimistic. A lack of data on the quality of distance and digital education impedes evidence-based decision-making for addressing learning loss. Nonetheless, schools must prioritize accelerated and remedial learning programs to bridge both the gaps in students’ learning and the learning losses that have occurred during the closure. Without such action, these learning losses will accumulate across the course of children’s lives, excluding them from future opportunities for learning, skills development, employment, and meaningful participation in social and civic life.

The urgency in bridging these learning gaps, especially for the most vulnerable children, cannot be overemphasized.

Despite the rapid transition to distance education, including primarily television and computer-based learning, generous estimates note that 1 in 2 students[iii] were likely unable to participate in distance learning delivered via each of these modalities. At least 25 million, and likely many more, students were unable to be reached at all. The most marginalized children—including children with disabilities, ethnic and linguistic minority children such as Roma, refugee children, those from the poorest families and living in remote, rural areas—are disproportionately represented among those who were the most excluded throughout the pandemic. These children also constitute a significantly larger proportion of the more than 28.7 million children[iv]who were already out-of-school or who were in school but not learning prior to the pandemic. These equity gaps along with the digital divide, especially for girls and the farthest behind, are compounding the challenges that the education sector faces in delivering quality, inclusive learning.

Addressing these barriers to accelerate learning outcomes and drive improvements in equity across the region will be essential for not only supporting pandemic recovery but also for investing in and cultivating cognitive capital to drive economic growth and prosperity.

This will require systems that are flexible and resilient to crises, teachers who are adequately prepared and supported, and content that is aligned with the knowledge and skills needed for employment, social and civic engagement, and to solve the region’s most pressing challenges.

The risks of failing to prioritize learning, especially for the most vulnerable, are already seen in increasing absolute and relative poverty. Yet this urgency is accompanied by additional funding requirements related to digital learning and comes at a time of increasing fiscal austerity and a decrease in the resources available for investment in public services, including education.

COVID-19 has presented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen and update education systems to reach more children and young people with high quality, inclusive learning and to ensure that these systems are prepared for and adaptive in the face of future crises. We must keep in mind that these are unlikely to be the only prolonged school closures that these children face in their lifetime, as many countries in the region are particularly vulnerable to the risks posed by environmental threats, natural disasters, and protracted conflict. However, it is imperative that we prioritize education now, especially in the immediate pandemic responses.

If we are to prevent COVID-19 from having a life-altering impact on an entire generation of children and young people, especially the most marginalized, we must ensure that schools are among the first places to reopen and the last to close.

A safe return to face-to-face learning will necessitate close cooperation between education and health authorities to ensure that transmission control measures are fit for the situation as well as the age of children in each school. Likewise, mitigation measures must be based on the most up-to-date evidence available and informed by students’, teachers’ and parents’ participation in decision-making. Within this changing educational landscape, standards and regulations for the delivery of educational services during and beyond COVID-19 must address decision-making, hygiene regulations, infrastructure and related needs, and learning, while also accounting for the changing role of teachers and non-teaching staff.

Still, the harmful impact of prolonged school closures on children’s learning, health and well-being cannot be overlooked. We must ensure that comprehensive services anticipate and respond to these needs by designing inclusive, personalized, accelerated learning opportunities based on assessment of what students have and have not learned during distance instruction.

In Europe and Central Asia, UNICEF is strengthening teachers’ capacity for formative assessment, including in distance, digital and blended learning contexts, to ensure that catch-up efforts are based on what students know and can do in relation to their learning goals.

This approach builds on and improves what teachers know and are accustomed to, with a focus on bridging learning gaps for the most marginalized children, including those who may have been out-of-school or in school but not learning prior to the pandemic. These efforts must maintain a focus on supporting learners’ well-being, including their physical and mental health, and identifying children and young people who are at risk of dropping out.

As we continue to support countries to return to face-to-face delivery and to build strong digital learning ecosystems our region, we must maintain a focus on teachers, whose pedagogy is key to learning. Digital learning not only facilitates flexible and personalized learning, but it is also a key driver of the digital transformation in the region.

Supporting teachers’ digital skills and their capacity to use ICT for quality, inclusive teaching is critical to ensuring that the most vulnerable children, including girls, Roma children and youth, and children and young people with disabilities, are not further marginalized. Rather, quality instruction, supported by education technology that is inclusively designed, must enable learning to continue for every child and to empower young people as innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders of this transformation in our region.


[i] See:

[ii] Among those who have had at least 1 week of education disruption.

[iii] In UNICEF programming countries in Europe & Central Asia. See:

[iv] in UNICEF programming countries in Europe & Central Asia