By BIANCA VÁZQUEZ TONESS and JOCELYN GECKER – AP Education Writers
With COVID-related school disruptions setting back children around the world, activists on Monday implored world leaders to prioritize school systems and restore slashed education budgets when the pandemic hit.
The Education Transformation Summit, held at the United Nations General Assembly ahead of the annual leaders’ meeting, was expected to produce commitments from the nations of the world to ensure that the children of the world whole, from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States, are not too far behind.
“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping that the voice of a teenage girl who shot herself defending her education would be heard,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said. Malala Yousafzai, a UN messenger of peace. “On this day, countries, businesses, civil society, we all pledged to work together to get every child in school by 2030. It is heartbreaking that halfway through that target date, we we face an education emergency.”
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Young Nigerian activist Karimot Odebode was more pointed. “We ask you to take responsibility,” Odebode told the General Assembly. “We won’t stop until every person in every village and every mountain has access to education.”
The percentage of 10-year-olds in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read a simple story has risen to around 70%, up 13 percentage points since before classrooms were closed by 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 learn the other skills they need to thrive? Systemic issues that existed before the pandemic will have to be addressed, dignitaries and students say. Countries will need to increase spending, change policies to increase access for girls and students with disabilities, and modernize teaching to emphasize critical thinking rather than rote memorization.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to radically transform education,” UN Under-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told reporters ahead of the education summit at UN headquarters in New York. “We owe it to the rising generation if we don’t want to see a generation of misfits emerge.”
When COVID-19 schools closed around the world in the spring of 2020, many children simply stopped learning – some for months, some for longer. For many, distance learning did not exist. More than 800 million young people around the world did not have access to the internet at home, according to a study by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union in December 2020.
More recent studies point to the lasting effects of the pandemic. “The learning losses from COVID have been enormous,” Mohammed said.
The length of school building closures due to COVID-19 varied widely around the world. To the extreme, schools in parts of Latin America and South Asia have been 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 huge variations in the availability and quality of distance learning. In some countries, students stuck at home had access to paper packets, or radio and television programs, or almost nothing at all. Others had access to the Internet and video conferences 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 around the world are now reopened, but 244 million school-age children are still out of school, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said at the summit, citing data from United Nations education agency. Most of these children – 98 million – live in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Central and South Asia, a reminder of the deep inequalities that persist in access to education, she said.
In many places, money is the key ingredient to stemming the crisis, if not fully achieving the leaders’ lofty goal of “transforming education”. “Financing education must be a priority for governments,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly on Monday. “It is the most important investment a country can make in its people and its future.”
According to a report by UNESCO and Global Education Monitoring, wealthy countries invest an average of $8,000 a year per school-aged child, compared to upper-middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, which invest $1,000 dollars per year. Low-income countries allocate about $300 per year and some poor countries only $50 per year per student.
Rich countries should also increase their spending, said António Guterres. In recent years, Germany, France and the United States have provided the most international aid for education in low-income countries, according to a 2021 report by the Center for Global Development. The United States invested more than $1.5 billion a year from 2017 to 2019, according to the report based on the most recent data available.
While senior dignitaries urged countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, it was some of the youngest participants at the summit who expressed the most skepticism about any prospect of change. After all, the UN has no authority to force countries to spend more on schooling.
Yousafzai urged countries to spend 20% of their budgets on education. “Most of you know exactly what needs to be done,” she said. “You should not make small, stingy, short-term promises.”
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow Bianca Vázquez Toness on Twitter at http://twitter.com/biancavtoness and Jocelyne Gecker at http://twitter.com/jgecker
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