In the U.S., there are more than 55 million children of school age, and this year they have all, each and every one, had their education massively interrupted in a way usually only seen in countries at war.

Some schools, either by state or by district, are scrambling to re-invent their curricula for online learning. Others have simply shuttered for the year, with educational materials sent home to be completed before next September, when everyone expects classwork to resume as normal. Either way, what it means for students is nearly half a year of unstructured time and haphazard education.

UNICEF, which works in over 190 countries with the most disadvantaged children in the world, has always held that educational disruption can have generational effects.

“Schools in the majority of countries worldwide have closed. It is an unprecedented situation and unless we collectively act now to protect children’s education, societies and economies will feel the burden long after we’ve beaten COVID-19,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s Global Chief of Education. “The longer children stay away from school, the less likely they are to ever return.”

Even with schools ready and waiting to resume normal patterns, educational interruptions as short as six months makes many children and adolescents less likely to return at all. And while a great deal of resources are being mobilized to make sure young students have some continuity, special care needs to be taken with older students.

This year’s high school seniors are mostly losing their senior year. Many schools are simply freezing grades as they were in mid-March, and basing graduation on those grades in lieu of trying to finish the school year via online measures. These students will be at a disadvantage being accepted to colleges since everyone will know their education to be incomplete.

And this year’s juniors, many of whom are over 16 and therefore no longer legally required to go to school in most states, can be predicted to drop out at unprecedented rates.

UNICEF is working to keep this from happening through supporting governments’ crisis response plans including technical assistance, rapid risk analysis, data collection, and planning for the reopening of schools. The agency is also working to ensure continuity of learning and access to remote learning programs, support the planning and implementation of safe school operation, and enhancing knowledge sharing and capacity building for the current educational response to COVID-19 and for future pandemics.

What will the actual dropout rates be? There’s no telling yet. This is an unprecedented crisis in the modern world. But these are reasonable concerns that need to be taken into account in managing the closeout of the 2019-20 school year. Fortunately, UNICEF is ready and willing to help governments around the world to minimize the impact of the education disruption wrought by COVID-19.

Photo: Shutterstock

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