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Education and

Pandemic Responses and Recovery

Key message

Education is essential during the response to a pandemic and the key to long-term recovery.

Strong and resilient education systems are one of the most helpful ways to prepare young people for shocks, disseminate accurate information about health and hygiene, deliver essential health services, and restore a sense of normalcy during crises. School networks can ensure young people, especially the most marginalised and vulnerable, are looked after and supported during ongoing challenges in their communities. Investing in quality and inclusive education during a pandemic helps a cohort of children to remain resilient, rebound after a crisis and be better prepared for the future.
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Key challenges
  • School closures have economic costs. Without immediate remedial education when school resumes, some estimates suggest today’s cohort of learners could face a US$10 trillion loss in future earnings over the next generation.
    (World Bank, 2020)
  • For girls, being out of school increases the risk of child marriage, teen pregnancy, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, and child labour. During the Ebola outbreak, teen pregnancies in certain parts of Sierra Leone increased by 65%, and child labour by girls increased 19%.
    (UNDP, 2015)  (UNICEF, 2021)
  • Distance education requires innovative solutions to overcome the digital divide. Only 47% of households in developing countries and 12% in the least developed countries have access to the Internet at home. Even in countries with wide Internet access, such as Italy, one in four households lack a strong enough connection to download and stream education content.
    (GEM, 2020)
  • Pandemics can have severe immediate and long-lasting consequences for entire generations. COVID-19 disrupted the education of more than 1.6 billion, with an expected additional 10 million children — often girls and the most marginalised — expected to never return to school again.
    (Save the Children, 2020)
  • Distance learning initiatives utilized during pandemics need to be strengthened. Nearly 80% of parents believed that their children had learned little or nothing while schools were shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis.
    (Save the Children, 2020)
  • Even short-term school closures during pandemics significantly increase learning loss. In low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70% of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-COVID-19.
    (UNICEF, 2022)
  • Significant commitment and investment to education needs to be marshaled to return progress made to pre-pandemic levels. Modeling suggests that grade three reading proficiency will only return to pre-pandemic levels in 2030 at current rates.
    (Gustafsson, 2021)
  • Schools are a reliable source of food and daily nutrition for many children. Over 370 million children globally missed out on school meals during school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
    (UNICEF, 2022)
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Make the case
  • Education is a priority for children. In a survey of thousands of children across 17 emergency scenarios, 99% said education was a top priority.
    (Save the Children, 2015)
  • Children want education. During the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016, 71% children and youth said that what bothered them the most about the crisis was ‘no school’.
    (Global Education Cluster, 2015)
  • Mental health services from schools during crises prevent irreversible damage from ‘toxic stress’. Every US dollar invested in social emotional learning interventions in schools can yield a return of US$11.
    (Education Cannot Wait, 2019)
  • School is a critical place to disseminate important information about hygiene and public health. In a meta-review of 38 studies, all the studies that examined changes in knowledge, attitudes, and hygiene behaviours reported positive change among children, such as hand-washing with soap.
    (McMichael, 2019)
  • A little bit of education goes a long way during a pandemic. When schools closed in Sierra Leone due to Ebola, a one-hour daily class for girls in life skills, sexual and reproductive health, and vocational learning was enough to reduce by half the rate of drop outs from school post-crisis.
    (Bandiera et al., 2018)
  • Restoring education as quickly as possible helps children rebound. Investment into education post-pandemic is especially important, given that children may lose more than a full year’s worth of learning from a three-month closure if no special remediation measures are taken.
    (Kaffenberger, 2020)
  • Investing in education helps build a strong public health workforce to combat future pandemics. Greater investments are needed to strengthen health workforce capacity and flexibility. This can also help to avoid the risk of entering another public health crisis or other global disruption that has these structural weaknesses.
    (OECD, 2023)
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Key infographic
Tw Infographics Pandemics 18Sept2020
Without the immediate ramping up of education, there will be a shortage of 15 million health workers worldwide by 2030
Key Q&As
  • If children can’t go to school full time, is it worth bothering with alternative forms of education?
  • Education provides a sense of normalcy for children. Even one hour of instruction per day for girls in Sierra Leone made them much less likely to drop out of school when the recent pandemic ended. Even closing school for three months can set a child back more than one year of education if remedial measures are not taken.
  • Surely missing a few months of school won’t have a lasting impact?
  • Restoring education in a safe and healthy manner as soon as possible is extremely important for children. For many young people, school is a safe place to receive a healthy meal and be protected from toxic stress at home or, in more extreme cases, violence and neglect. Moreover, it’s estimated that being out of school for just a few months may cost this cohort of children over
    US$10 trillion in future earnings.
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Key opinions
Robert Jenkins
Robert Jenkins
Global Director of Education and Adolescent Development for UNICEF
While the disruptions to learning must end, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition.
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Kevin Watkins Headshot 2020
Kevin Watkins
Former CEO of Save the Children
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the world's interconnectedness like nothing before it. At this moment in history, the opportunity increases to reinvent institutions and paradigms of education. It requires the world to come together in ways that have never been seen or done before - across borders, sectors and disciplines. Big changes start with small steps, so let’s use this moment as an opportunity to build back better education.
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Key talking points
  • More than 616 million students remain affected by full or partial school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • During a pandemic, restoring some form of education as quickly and safely as possible is paramount.
  • Restoring education has immediate benefits to the health and wellbeing of children.
  • There are a variety of innovative ways to deliver education during a pandemic, ranging from distance instruction with radio, television and phones to online education and reduced capacity in-person instruction.
  • Strong education systems promote growth, economic development and skills training, helping a country rebound more quickly from a pandemic.
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