At the UN, leaders confront the impact of COVID on global education

At the UN, leaders confront the impact of COVID on global education

With COVID-related school disruptions holding kids around the world back, activists on Monday pleaded with world leaders to prioritize school systems and restore education budgets slashed when the pandemic hit.

The Summit on Transforming Education, held at the UN General Assembly ahead of the annual leaders’ meeting, is expected to lead to commitments from the world’s countries to ensure that children everywhere from South Africa Sahara to the United States not too far behind. .

“Seven years ago, I stood on this podium hoping to hear the voice of a teenage girl who took a bullet for her education,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a UN peacekeeper. “On that day, countries, companies, civil society all committed us to work together to see every child in school by 2030. It is heartbreaking that we are faced with an educational emergency halfway through that target date.”

Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was sharper. “We demand that you take your responsibility,” Odebode told the General Assembly. “We will not stop until everyone in every village and every highland has access to education.”

The percentage of 10-year-old children in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read simple stories has risen to an estimated 70% — a 13 percentage point increase since classrooms closed before the pandemic, 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 requires tackling systemic problems that existed before the pandemic, dignitaries and students say. Countries will need to increase spending, change policies to increase access for girls and disabled students, and modernize instruction to emphasize critical thinking rather than rote learning.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform education,” UN Deputy 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 rise 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, others for longer. For many, there was no such thing as distance learning. According to a study by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union in December 2020, more than 800 million young people around the world did not have internet access at home.

More recent studies underline the lasting effects of the pandemic. “The learning losses from COVID have been huge,” Mohammed said.

The time when school buildings were closed due to COVID-19 varied widely around the world. In extreme cases, schools in parts of Latin America and South Asia were 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 large differences in the availability and quality of distance learning. In some countries, students sitting at home had access to paper packages, or radio and television programs, or almost nothing at all. Others had access to the Internet and videoconferencing with teachers.

Estimated learning delays ranged on average from more than 12 months of school 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 classrooms in the world are now open again, but 244 million school-age children are still out of school, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said at the summit, citing data from the UN Education Agency. Most of those children — 98 million — live in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Central and South Asia, as a reminder of the deep inequalities that persist in access to education, she said.

In many places, money is the key ingredient to contain the crisis, if not fully achieve 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 single most important investment a country can make in its people and its future.”

According to a report by UNESCO and Global Education Monitoring, rich countries invest an average of $8,000 per year per school-aged child, compared to upper-middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, who invest $1,000 per year. Lower-income countries give about $300 a year and some poor countries, only $50 a year per student.

Rich countries should also spend more, Guterres said. According to a 2021 report by the Center for Global Development, Germany, France and the United States have given the most international aid to education in low-income countries. The United States invested more than $1.5 billion annually from 2017-2019, according to the report based on the most recent data available.

While leading dignitaries urged individual countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, it was some of the youngest summit participants who expressed the most skepticism about any prospect of change. After all, the UN has no power whatsoever to force countries to spend more on education.

Yousafzai urged countries to spend 20% of their budget on education. “Most of you know exactly what needs to be done,” she said. “You shouldn’t make small, stingy and short-term promises.”


The Associated Press education team is supported by New York’s Carnegie Corporation. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow Bianca Vázquez Toness on Twitter at and Jocelyn Gecker at

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