COVID-19-Induced School Closures Impacted 247 Million Indian Children: UNICEF

As many as 1.5 million schools remained closed during 2020 due to the coronavirus lockdown in India, the UN agency said.

New Delhi: As many as 1.5 million schools remained closed during 2020 due to the coronavirus lockdown, which saw the study opportunities of 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in India damaged, a UNICEF report has found.

The report stated that online education is not an option for many children, as only one in four has access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Pre-COVID-19 crisis, only a quarter of households (24%) in India had access to the internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide, the study says.

“In India, closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, there are over six million girls and boys who were already out of school even before the COVID-19 crisis began,” a statement from the UN agency said on Wednesday.

Presently, only eight Indian states or Union Territories (UTs) have reopened schools for students from Class I to Class XII. In addition, another 11 states have reopened schools for students in Classes VI-XII and 15 states have only opened schools for students in Classes IX-XII. Three States have reopened anganwadi centers, with younger children losing out greatly on crucial foundational learning, the study said.

“It has been nearly a year since the pandemic caused schools to close and disrupt the normal routine of children throughout India. We know that the longer children stay out of school, the more vulnerable they become, with less chances of returning to school. Any decision to reopen schools is made with the best interests of children in mind and as schools re-open in a staggered manner with children returning to their classrooms, we must strive to support them in catching up on the learning they have missed,” said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative.

This is especially true for those who were not able to access digital or remote learning opportunities, Haque said, adding that the mental health and well-being of children is a crucial concern, while psycho-social support from teachers, parents and caregivers is a priority.

She also revealed that UNICEF, UNESCO, UNHCR, World Bank and the World Food Programme have developed a ‘Global Framework for Reopening Schools’, which was adapted to the Indian context.

The Ministry of Education has finalised guidelines, drafted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), for safe school re-opening with emphasis on promoting regular handwashing and safe hygiene practices of students, teachers and other school staff and sanitisation of schools, with adequate supplies and facilities as well as physical distancing strategies, the statement said.

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UNESCO said that more than 888 million children worldwide continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures.

Globally, schools for more than 168 million children have been completely closed for almost a full year, the report found. “Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning,” UNICEF said.

“As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created. With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalised paying the heaviest price,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director. “We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children. No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans.”

(With PTI inputs)