The education of 3.7 crore children in Bangladesh and about 80 crore children in Asia has been disrupted due to school closures since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, said a recent report.
The report titled "Situation Analysis on the Effects and Responses to Covid-19 on the Education Sector in Asia (SitAn Report)," released yesterday by the Unicef and the Unesco, highlights the continued impact of the pandemic on children's education and features various regional government's programmes and initiatives to respond to it.
In some countries, for example the Philippines, schools have been closed throughout the entire pandemic to date. In Bangladesh, schools were closed throughout the entire pandemic until 12 September, when they reopened again.
The associated consequences of continuous school closures are staggering and include learning loss, mental distress, missed school meals and routine vaccinations, heightened risk of drop out of structured education, increased child labour, and increased child marriage, said the report.
Many of these dire consequences are already affecting countless children, and many will continue to be felt in the years to come.
The increased risk of dropping out of schools due to the pandemic, especially for girls and children in poor and already marginalised families, threatens to reverse progress made in school enrolment in recent decades.
According to the report, education budgets in the region will need to increase by an average of 10% to catch up with such losses if Asia is to reach the education targets of the UN 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals in the next nine years.
"We cannot overlook the impact that the disruption of education services has had on children, particularly the most vulnerable. When schools remain closed, children miss out on the biggest opportunity to learn and develop to their full potential," stated Marcoluigi Corsi, Unicef regional director for East Asia and Pacific.
"The future of an entire generation is at stake; therefore, we need every effort to ensure a safe reopening of schools as soon as possible. Otherwise, the learning loss will be difficult to overcome," he added.
This is why the report underscores the importance of delivering equitable and inclusive distance learning at scale to reach all children during full or partial school closures, while providing a package of support to ensure children's health, nutrition and wellbeing.
It also calls on governments and partners to strengthen teaching and teacher support, so as to address current low levels of learning and help narrow the learning divide, and protect and preserve education funding.
"With schools now open in Bangladesh after an 18-month closure, we must spare no effort to rapidly put in place mechanisms that help children catch-up, keeping a particular focus on the most disadvantaged children. Now is the time to invest, to strengthen the education system, and to bridge digital inequalities," said Sheldon Yett, Unicef representative to Bangladesh.
Unless mitigation measures are swiftly implemented, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates an economic loss of $1.25 trillion for Asia, which is equivalent to 5.4% of the region's 2020 gross domestic product (GDP).
Existing evidence shows that the cost of addressing learning gaps is lower and more effective when they are tackled early on in a crisis, and that ongoing investments made in education will support economic recovery, growth and prosperity.
"Governments, partners and the private sector will need to work together, not only to get the strategies and levels of investment right, but to build more resilient, effective and inclusive systems that are able to deliver on the promise of education as a fundamental human right for all children, whether schools are open or closed," said George Laryea-Adjei, Unicef Regional director for South Asia.
"While major efforts are needed to mitigate the learning loss of those children who return to school in the post-Covid-19 recovery phase, we must also remember that 128 million children in Asia were already out of school at the onset of the pandemic; this figure represents roughly half of all out-of-school children globally. This is a learning crisis which needs to be addressed," said Shigeru Aoyagi, director of Unesco Bangkok.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Unicef and the Unesco have supported national governments to maintain and improve interventions to ensure continuity of children's learning and to safely reopen and operate schools.