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Neat to know ~ Feature of the week

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Children and the Pandemic

The long-lasting impact of a year without school

An empty classroom in Kikinda, Serbia, 2020

Photo: Dobrislava, CC BY-SA 4.0


Over a year ago, schools around the world closed their doors.  Children were sent home and told to stay there until the coronavirus pandemic was over.  Little did we know that these school closings would last months.  Nor did we realize what far-reaching effects such closings would have on the world’s children.

On March 2, 2021, a new exhibit opened in New York City.  168 empty desks and chairs, each with a bright blue backpack hanging from the seat back, stood in the Rose Garden at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.  The desks represent the 168 million children whose schools were entirely, or almost entirely, shut down since the lockdowns began in the spring of 2020.  The backpacks symbolize the potential of children, that has, in countless cases, been forced to lie dormant during school shut-downs.  The exhibit is called “Pandemic Classroom,” and it is the initiative of UNICEF – the United Nations agency that works for the rights of the world’s children.

Linda Thomas Greenfield, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.), has called the situation, “an education emergency.”  And Robert Jenkins, Education Director at UNICEF, urges countries to make opening schools a priority.  UNICEF, along with other U.N. agencies, emphasizes that these openings must be made safely, with measures in place to protect students and teachers from contracting the coronavirus.  The U.N. has put together a plan for how to make schools safe.  It urges countries to put these guidelines at the tops of their agendas so that children can get back to school as soon, and as safely, as possible.

The closing of schools has not only hurt children’s educational opportunities.  It has affected young people in all areas of their lives.  Poor children have lost the most – have suffered the most – and the pandemic has highlighted the yawning divide between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.


– Almost 125 million people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide.  Of those, over 2.7 million have died of Covid-19.

– According to UNESCO (another U.N. education agency), some 888 million children have been missing all, or a significant part, of school since the pandemic hit.  Approximately 1.6 billion children have not been able to attend school at some point during the pandemic.

– Panama closed its schools for more days than any country.  Almost as many days of school closings occurred in El Salvador.  Of the 14 countries whose schools stayed closed throughout most of the pandemic, nine are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

– One out of every seven children has had to stay home from school in 2020.

– That kids will be able to simply bounce back once schools are able to open is an unrealistic expectation.  In fact, the U.N. agencies studying this problem say that 24 million children are likely to never return to school again, even once things return to normal.

– As schools shut down, a lot of teaching and learning went online.  Some children were able to access this form of remote schooling from home.  But over a billion students, aged 3-17,  – that’s two-thirds of the world’s children who attend school – do not have an Internet connection at home.  They have been missing out on all school learning since schools were shut down.

The world’s schools provide far more than an education

For millions of children around the world, school is not a place they “have to” go to.  It’s the only place where they feel safe and cared for, where they are allowed to dream about the future, where they find possibility and hope, and where they can build relationships with their peers.  Cutting off kids’ access to schools has had a devastating effect on many levels.

– Many children live in unsafe situations at home.  They may have abusive adults living in their households.  Their neighborhoods may experience violence and crime.  There might be no one around to look after their well-being.  These children find safe harbor in school.  During the pandemic, however, many kids were forced to remain within unhealthy and often dangerous home environments.

– Social workers who would have regularly checked in on children and families have stopped making visits to homes.  So, kids have become even more vulnerable and in many cases, have simply fallen through the cracks of the system.  They have disappeared from the radar of organizations that normally keep an eye on at-risk kids.

– UNICEF says that many children who would have normally found hope and opportunity by attending school, were instead forced into child labor or even child marriage.

– For kids all over the world, schools are the sole providers of essential health services, like immunizations.  These fell by the wayside as schools were shuttered.

– Many families depend on schools to provide children with nutritious meals.  The closing of schools has caused a rise in child hunger.

– The psychological effects of the isolation and stress experienced by kids during the pandemic are difficult to measure.  But studies show that they are far-reaching and will be long-lasting.  As families have had to deal with financial losses, unemployment, social isolation, and just the general collapse of normal life, kids have been watching and absorbing everything happening around them.  Anxiety, sleep problems, and depression have afflicted many children during a time when there are few services available to support them.  Moreover, with reports of illness and death caused by Covid-19 dominating news headlines, fear of the pandemic has darkened the outlook of children worldwide.

– Needless to say, trouble for the world’s children did not begin with the spread of the coronavirus.  War, hunger, poverty, abuse and the emotional trauma associated with these were already running rampant.  But the pandemic made these problems worse.    It took away the few fragile lifelines that had previously offered some shred of hope.

More about UNICEF

– UNICEF is an acronym for the organization’s original name: United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.  The name was eventually changed to United Nations Children’s Fund, but the acronym stuck.

– The organization was founded in 1946 by the United Nations.  World War II had just ended, and the U.N. was created to aid the millions whose lives had been torn apart by the war.  By 1950, the growing need for UNICEF’s programs around the world became evident, and the organization began to work on behalf of children everywhere, focusing on the poorest of the poor.  In 1965, UNICEF received the Nobel Peace Prize.

– UNICEF is supported by donations from individuals.  Governments also help fund the organization.

– The main aims of UNICEF come from the basic beliefs outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that all children have certain fundamental rights, including safety, health (both mental and physical), and education.  Among its many life-changing and life-saving projects are supporting immunizations for all children, providing food for children in areas ravaged by war and famine, helping families rebuild after natural disasters, and initiating projects that get clean water to communities.

Sources: Falk, Pamela, CBS News, “U.N. uses empty desks of “Pandemic Classroom” in call on nations to end ‘very worrying’ COVID school closures,” https://www.cbsnews.com/covid-schools-closures/, March 3, 2021; UN News, “The virus that shut down the world: Education in crisis,” https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1080732, December 28.2020; Triggle, Nick, BBC, Covid: The devastating toll of the pandemic on children,” https://www.bbc.com/news/health-55863841, January 30, 2021; UN News, “Over 168 million children miss nearly a year of schooling, UNICEF says,” https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086232, March 3, 2021; UNICEF.org, “How the COVID-19 pandemic has scarred the world’s children,” https://www.unicef.org/children, March 10, 2021; Britannica Kids, “UNICEF,” https://kids.britannica.com/kids/article/UNICEF/.