Over 616 million, or 61.60 crore, students have been adversely affected by full or partial closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations Children’s Fund said on Monday.

Sharing data on the impact of school closures on children, the Unicef pointed out that several millions have missed out on the academic learning with younger students and those marginalised suffering the “greatest loss”.

The global children welfare organisation said that 70% of those aged 10 in low-and-middle-income countries cannot read or understand simple texts due to closing down of schools. It said that the figure was 53% before the pandemic broke out.

The Unicef said that primary school children in Ethiopia were estimated to have learnt only between 30% and 40% of the math they would have otherwise accomplished if it had been a normal school year.

In several Brazilian states, the UN body said, about three in every four children in Class 2 faced difficulties in reading, up from 1 in 2 children before the pandemic. “Across Brazil, 1 in 10 students aged 10-15 reported they are not planning to return to school once their schools reopen,” it said.

In South Africa, students were about 75% behind schedule compared to a full academic year. Around 4 lakh to 5 lakh students had reportedly dropped out of school between March 2020 and July 2021, the Unicef said.

The UN body also pointed out that learning losses have been observed in several US states, including Maryland, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas, California, Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee.

“In Texas, for example, two thirds of children in grade 3 tested below their grade level in math in 2021, compared to half of children in 2019,” it said.

The children welfare body said that besides learning loss, closing down of schools have impacted children’s mental health, their access to nutritional food and also increased the risk of abuse.

“A growing body of evidence shows that Covid-19 has caused high rates of anxiety and depression among children and young people, with some studies finding that girls, adolescents and those living in rural areas are most likely to experience these problems,” it said.

The Unicef also said that over 370 million, or 37 crore, students have missed out on school meals, which is the only reliable source of food and daily nutrition for some children.

“Quite simply, we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling,” Unicef’s Director of Education Robert Jenkins said.

Jenkins called for ending such disruptions to children education but said that just reopening schools would not be enough.

“Students need intensive support to recover lost education,” he added. “Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition.”

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Effects of school closure on children

In India, educators and child rights activists have also said that school closures are having catastrophic consequences for the country’s children.

For one, most children haven’t had any exposure to formal learning for almost two years. Only one in four children in India has access to the digital devices and internet connectivity required to transition to online education, according to a Unicef report released in March 2021.

In January, the National Coalition on the Education Emergency, a conglomeration of networks that work on the Right to Education, opposed the closing of schools, saying it would “spell a disaster for children”.

The group said that as schools had remained mostly closed in India since March 2020 it has had “devastating consequences” for the nutrition, health and education of many children. It also said that labour, early marriages and domestic violence against children have also increased.

In January last year, researchers at Azim Premji University surveyed 16,067 children from Classes 2 to 6 in 1,137 government schools across five states. They found on average 92% of students had lost at least one specific language ability and 82% had lost at least one specific mathematical ability compared to previous years.

Between May and June 2020, Oxfam India surveyed close to 1,200 parents and 500 teachers across Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. Eighty per cent of the parents said their children had not received any education during the lockdown. Four of five students had not received their textbooks for the academic year 2020-’21. More than one-third of the children had not received midday meals despite government orders.

Another survey conducted in August in 15 states and Union Territories had shown that 97% of parents of underprivileged children in rural India want schools to reopen as soon as possible.

One of the primary causes of this, the report said, was that many households had no access to smartphones. “Even among households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who are studying online regularly is just 31% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas,” the report had added.