UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore remarks at a press conference on new updated guidance on school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19

As prepared

15 September 2020
Thailand. Children sit at their desks in a classroom.
UNICEF Thailand

NEW YORK, 15 September 2020 - UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore gives remarks at a UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO press conference on new updated guidance on school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19.

"At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools closed their doors in 192 countries, sending 1.6 billion students home.

"Today, almost nine months since the coronavirus outbreak started, 872 million students – or half the world’s student population – in 51 countries are still unable to head back to their classrooms.

"Millions of these children were fortunate enough to learn remotely — online, through radio or TV broadcasts, or otherwise.

"However, UNICEF data shows that, for at least 463 million children whose schools closed due to COVID-19, there was no such thing as “remote learning.”

"Why?

"Because at least one-third of the world’s schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered their schools. Including because of a lack of internet access, computers or mobile devices.

"The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is nothing short of a global education emergency. 

"Let me share one more alarming – and new – statistic: UNICEF recently surveyed 158 countries about their school reopening plans and found that 1 in 4 countries has not put a date in place for allowing schoolchildren back to the classroom.

"We know that closing schools for prolonged periods of time can have devastating consequences for children.

"They become more exposed to physical and emotional violence. Their mental health is affected. They are more vulnerable to child labor and sexual abuse, and are less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.

"For the most marginalized, missing out on school -- even if only for a few weeks -- can lead to negative outcomes that last a lifetime.

"We know that beyond learning, schools provide children with vital health, immunization and nutrition services, and a safe and supportive environment.

"These services are put on hold when schools are closed.

"And we also know that the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return. At least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school due to COVID.

"That’s why we are urging government to prioritise re-opening schools, when restrictions are lifted.

"We’re urging them to look at all the things that children need – learning, protection, physical health, mental health – and ensure the best interest of every child is put first.

"This latest guidance released by our three agencies offers suggestions on how we can reopen schools while keeping children and communities safe.

"And we know that some countries have already taken measures to do so.

"In Senegal, for example, schools have spaced-out classroom chairs to keep distance between students. Rwanda is building new classrooms and recruiting more teachers. Egypt has created smaller classes and staggered school hours into shifts. Many countries have increased hand washing stations, introduced health checks, and moved sports and other activities outdoors. Other countries are also using blended learning: A mixture of in-person and remote learning.

"And when governments decide to keep schools closed, we urge them to scale up remote learning opportunities for all children, especially the most marginalized. Find innovative ways — including online, TV and radio — to keep children learning, no matter what.

"Before the pandemic, the world was facing a learning crisis — in terms of both access to, and the quality of, education for every child.

"If we don’t take action now, this crisis will only deepen.

"And children will pay the highest price of all.

"Their futures are at stake, and we urge all countries to put their children first.

"Thank you."

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