With COVID-related school holidays delaying children around the world, activists pleaded with world leaders on Monday to prioritize school systems and restore education budgets slashed when the pandemic hit.
The summit on transforming education, held at the United Nations General Assembly ahead of the annual meeting of leaders, was expected to produce commitments from the world’s nations to ensure that children everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States do not they stay far behind.
“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping that the voice of a teenage girl who took a bullet to defend her education would be heard,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, UN Messenger of Peace. “On that day, countries, companies, civil society, we all committed to work together to see every child in school by 2030. It is heartbreaking that halfway through that target date, we are faced with an educational emergency”.
Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was more blunt. “We demand that you take responsibility,” Odebode told the General Assembly. “We will not stop until every person in every village and in every mountain 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 about 70% — 13 percentage points from pre-pandemic closed classrooms, according to a report by the World Bank, UNESCO. and UNICEF.
Will world 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, officials and students say. Countries should increase spending, change policies to increase access for girls and students with special needs, and modernize instruction to emphasize critical thinking rather than rote memorization.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally transform education,” UN Under-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters ahead of the education summit at UN headquarters in New York. “We owe it to the next generation if we don’t want to witness the emergence of a generation of misfits.”
When COVID-19 closed schools around the world in the spring of 2020, many children simply stopped learning — some for months, some for longer. For many, there was no such thing as distance learning. More than 800 million young people around the world did not have access to the Internet at home, according to a study by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union in December 2020.
More recent studies highlight the lasting effects of the pandemic. “The learning losses from COVID have been huge,” Mohamed said.
The length of time school buildings were closed due to COVID-19 varied widely around the world. At the extreme, schools in parts of Latin America and South Asia remained closed for 75 weeks or more, 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 huge differences in the availability and quality of distance education. 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 on average ranged from more than 12 months of schooling 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 open, but 244 million school-age children are still out of school, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said during the summit, citing figures 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 persist in access to education, he said.
In many places, money is the key ingredient to stemming the crisis, if not fully achieving the leaders’ lofty goal of “transforming education.” “Education funding must be a priority for governments,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly on Monday. “It is the most important investment a country can make in its people and its future.”
On average, rich countries invest $8,000 a year per school-age child, compared to upper-middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, which invest $1,000 a year, according to a report by UNESCO and Global Education Monitoring. Lower-income countries allocate about $300 per year and some poor countries as little as $50 per 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 to education in low-income countries, according to a 2021 report by the Center for Global Development. The United States invested more than 1.5 billion dollars annually from 2017-2019, according to the report based on the latest available data.
As top officials urged individual countries to prioritize their younger citizens, it was some of the summit’s youngest participants who expressed the most skepticism about any prospect of change. Besides, the United Nations lacks any power to force countries to spend more on schooling.
Yousafzai urged countries to dedicate 20% of their budgets to education. “Most of you know exactly what needs to be done,” he said. “You shouldn’t make small, stingy and short-term promises.”
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow Bianca Vázquez Toness on Twitter at http://twitter.com/biancavtoness and Jocelyn Gecker at http://twitter.com/jgecker