No more excuses. Schools must open

UNICEF’s Chief of Education talks about the immense loss of learning caused by school closures and the reasons why it’s critical to open schools

Ten-year-old, Manisha (10) happy to be back to school after COVID-19 lock down ends in her village Paderdi in Dungarpur, Rajasthan.
04 March 2022

As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues its spread all over the world, we urge governments to do everything in their power to keep it from further disrupting children’s education. UNICEF’s Chief of Education, Terry Durnnian, talks about the immense loss of learning caused by school closures and the reasons why it’s critical to open schools.

Frequent school closures have caused a lot of disruption in children’s education. Shouldn’t remote learning be the new normal for children now?

We are in a situation where remote learning is back in a big way in most states. However, only 60 per cent of children have some access to remote learning and 40 per cent have no access. This is as per the Rapid Assessment we did last year. Frankly, I cannot imagine how most children have access to any learning outside the seven states that still have schools open. We are supporting states to do learning recovery programs, but even that has stopped due to school closures.   

There's also an interesting study done by the Azim Premji University in five states , which shows how most students have lost basic literacy and math skills. So remote learning is simply not adequate to prevent the learning crisis faced by children.

How have different groups of children been affected by this learning crisis?

The most affected groups have been children with disabilities, and children of scheduled tribes and migrant workers.

It has also affected girls and boys differently. We have done some research which shows that girls have less learning time in the house nowadays. When girls went to school, that was their learning time. In an average household, many tasks are expected to be managed by women and girls - like minding siblings and doing household chores - which boys don't have. When girls stay home, they are inadvertently expected to do these chores which impacts their learning time. On the other hand, when it comes to increase in child labor, more boys are affected than girls.

How is this learning disruption affecting India’s social and economic development goals?

Our youth, children, and adolescents are not getting the skills they need for employability.  Scaling up on education is not sufficient, we also need to focus on transferable skills like problem solving, collaboration, creative thinking, and experiential learning.

In India there' has been a learning crisis from before the pandemic. Less than 50% of children had learning levels, from 2017. The new learning assessment conducted in November last year will be released sometime this year and it will give us the first data showing where children stand since the pandemic hit.

We know that it will highlight what we already suspect - a huge learning loss. School closures are also affecting many children's ability to transition back to the education system. Adolescents who are looking at training, education or employment, are really not getting the necessary skills to move forward. The percentage of girls and women in the workforce is also steadily decreasing.

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