More than 400 million South Asian children have been affected by school closures extending into a second year in some countries during the COVID-19 pandemic according to a new UNICEF report.
The United Nations agency has urged the region’s countries to fully reopen schools, warning that the consequences of lost learning are huge and will be long-lasting in a region where access to remote learning is limited.
“The remarkable achievements our region has made in advancing child rights over recent decades are now at risk,” said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF regional director for South Asia.
“If we fail to act, the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for decades to come,” he said.
School closures in South Asia have lasted longer than in many other parts of the world with schools remaining fully closed on an average for nearly 32 weeks between March 2020 and August this year, according to the report.
In Bangladesh, schools were shut for 18 months, until September, one of the longest closures in the world. In countries such as India and Nepal they have only partially reopened.
The transition to remote learning has been difficult in a region where many houses do not have internet connectivity and where access to smartphones is limited – an earlier study showed that in India for example nearly half of the students between ages 6 and 13 reported not using any type of remote learning during school closures.
Many teachers also found they lacked the training to make remote learning work effectively, according to UNICEF.
The loss of learning happened in a region where many children were already lagging.
Citing examples, the report said that one study in India showed that the proportion of third grade children who could read a first grade level text fell from around 42% in 2018 to 24% in 2020.
It said girls were at a particular disadvantage because they had more limited access to mobile devices and were under increased pressure to perform domestic work.
There have been some successes – in Sri Lanka and Bhutan the distribution of published material to continue out-of-school learning helped children keep up with their studies.
UNICEF has called on countries to prioritize helping students catch up on the learning they have missed, pointing out that South Asia is home to more adolescents than any other part of the world and will need 21st century skills to gain a foothold in a region where jobs remain scarce.
The report also flagged concerns about the disruption of health services such as regular immunization drives due to the pandemic. It said that key actions are needed to “reverse the alarming rollback in child health and nutrition.”
The report said that the picture in South Asia remains bleak compared to developed countries, where more people are immunized, and economies are recovering.
Only 30% of South Asians are fully vaccinated, the report said, “and as the region braces itself for future waves of the virus, more children and families are slipping into poverty.”