World leaders should prioritize reopening schools for in-person learning immediately in order to avoid a “generational catastrophe,” UNICEF and UNESCO said in a joint statement Monday.
The organizations said that keeping schools closed to 156 million students in 19 countries, due to COVID-19, is causing potentially irreparable damage to child development. They also pointed out discrepancies in reopening strategies, which have often opened bars and restaurants while keeping schools shut.
“Closing schools mortgages our future for unclear benefits to our present,” the statement read. “We must prioritize better. We can reopen schools safely, and we must.”
The statement comes one day before the 2021 Global Education Meeting convenes, an annual event organized by UNESCO that brings together prominent education leaders to address global efforts to improve education.
Last year, leaders at the 2020 GEM agreed to a 15-month education plan focused on recovering from the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic and staying on track with other educational goals.
UNICEF’s and UNESCO’s primary argument for reopening schools now centered around mitigating the negative impacts 18 months of school closures have incurred.
“From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health,” they said. “The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages.”
The organizations urged governments not to wait for teachers and students to be fully vaccinated, even as the parts of the world experience surges in coronavirus cases, primarily due to a rise of the more contagious delta variant.
Over 3.1 billion people are vaccinated against COVID-19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. UNICEF helps lead COVAX, alternatively known as COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, an organization focused on the equitable distribution of vaccines.
UNICEF and UNESCO also pointed out in the statement that since schools aren’t a primary driver of virus transmission, the task of safely reopening schools is achievable if proper guidelines are implemented, such as mask wearing and social distancing for the unvaccinated.