As COVID-related school disruptions set back children around the world, activists urged world leaders on Monday to prioritize restoring school systems and education budgets when the pandemic hit.
The summit on transforming education, held at the UN General Assembly ahead of the annual meeting of leaders, was expected to deliver commitments from the world’s nations to ensure that children everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States far back. .
“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping to hear the voice of a teenage girl who took a bullet while standing up for her education,” said Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai , a UN messenger of peace. “On that day, countries, corporations, civil society, all of us committed to work together to see every child in schools by 2030. It is heartbreaking that we are facing an education emergency halfway through that deadline.”
Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was more prominent. “We demand that you take responsibility,” Odebode told the General Assembly, “We will not stop until everyone in every village and every country has access to education.”
The percentage of 10-year-olds in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read a simple story has risen to an estimated 70% – up 13 percentage points since before the pandemic closed classrooms, according to a report by the World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF .
Will the world’s leaders do enough to help their youngest citizens learn to read and acquire the other skills they need to thrive? It will require addressing systemic problems that existed before the pandemic, according to prominent figures and students. Countries will need to increase spending, change policies to increase access for girls and students with disabilities, and modernize teaching to emphasize critical thinking rather than rote memorization.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to transform education,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters ahead of an education summit at UN headquarters in New York. “We owe it to the next generation if we don’t want to see an unfit generation coming up.”
When COVID-19 closed schools around the world in the spring of 2020, many children did not stop learning – some for months, others for longer. For many, there was no such thing as distance learning. More than 800 million young people worldwide did not have internet access at home, according to a study by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union in December 2020.
Later studies highlight the lasting effects of the pandemic. “The learning losses from COVID have been huge,” Mohammed said.
The amount of time school buildings were closed due to COVID-19 varied widely around the world. In the west, schools in parts of Latin America and South Asia were closed for 75 weeks or longer, according to UNESCO. In parts of the United States, including cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, schools operated remotely from March 2020 through most of the 2020-2021 school year.
There were also wide variations in the availability and quality of distance learning. In some countries, students stuck at home had access to paper packets, or radio and television programs, or almost nothing. Others had access to the internet and video conferencing with teachers.
Estimated learning delays have increased on average from more than 12 school months for students in South Asia to less than four for students in Europe and Central Asia, according to an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Most of the world’s classrooms are now back open, but 244 million school-age children are still out of school, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said during the summit, citing data from the UN education agency. Most of those children – 98 million – live in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Central and South Asia, a reminder of the deep inequalities that remain in access to education, she said.
In many places, money is the key ingredient to stopping the crisis, if the leaders’ lofty goal of “transforming education” is not fully achieved. “Education funding must be a priority for governments,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly on Monday. “It is the most important investment any country can make in its people and its future.”
On average, rich countries invest $8,000 per year per school-age child, compared to upper middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, which invest $1,000 per year, according to a report by UNESCO and Global Education Monitoring. Low-income countries allocate about $300 a year and some poor countries, only $50 a year per student.
Rich countries should also increase spending, Guterres said. In recent years, Germany, France and the United States have given the most international aid towards education in low-income countries, according to a report from the Center for World Development in 2021. The United States invested more than $1.5 billion annually from 2017-2019, according to the report based on the most recent data available.
With prominent figures urging individual countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, some of the youngest people who attended the summit were the most skeptical of any prospect of change. After all, the UN has no authority to force countries to spend more on schooling.
Yousafzai encouraged countries to spend 20% of their budget on education. “Most of you know exactly what to do,” she said. “You must not make small, firm and short-term commitments.”
The Associated Press education staff is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all matters. Follow Bianca Vázquez Toness on Twitter at http://twitter.com/biancavtoness and Jocelyn Gecker at http://twitter.com/jgecker