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UNICEF struggles to help 1.5 billion students shut out of school in pandemic

Sam Matthews
Producer

The global coronavirus pandemic, which has closed many schools indefinitely, has had a huge effect on students — 1.5 billion of them around the world, according to Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s chief of education. “This is a whole new scale that even our worst-case scenario wouldn’t have thought of,” he told Yahoo News in an interview.

UNICEF currently has education offices in 135 countries dealing with the effects of the pandemic. Jenkins said that for now the organization's focus is threefold: continuing education remotely, providing safety for vulnerable students, and working with governments and educators to ensure that schools are ready when their doors reopen.

UNICEF is tailoring its approach based on the availability of mobile networks and access to e-learning technology, and employing low-tech solutions such as radio broadcasts and print where necessary. “We need to take a comprehensive view on not only learning but the support that schools provide children,” Jenkins said. “The solution will be different for each child, and each community, and each country.”

“I think it’s important to not underestimate how disruptive this has been to children’s daily routines, to children’s sense of security,” Jenkins said, warning that if the duration of school closures is extended, many children in vulnerable situations will never re-enroll.

Jenkins pointed to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa as an example of the effects of prolonged school closures. According to Jenkins, UNICEF saw a marked increase in violence against young women and a spike in teenage pregnancy in the affected countries during that time.

Because of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, the headwinds facing students are that much greater. “When you’re into that scale, everyone’s just trying to do the best that they can,” Jenkins told Yahoo News. “We’re in desperate need of more financial resources and tools.”

But he said the unprecedented scale of the problem has brought unprecedented attention, offering some hope for the future. Jenkins said that “the spirit” of how to solve the education crisis is there, and “now UNICEF is trying to figure out how to take that global goodwill” and translate it into tangible results. When schools do reopen, Jenkins hopes that the doors will be “opened as broadly as possible” so that students, particularly those most vulnerable, will be able to return.