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No Education, No Protection: What School Closures Under COVID-19 Mean For Children And Young People In Crisis-Affected Contexts

SCHOOLS worldwide offer interconnected formal and informal services to children and young people. These services focus not only on academic achievement but on social, emotional, psychological, and physical health and well-being.

By providing physical protection and oversight, daily routines, and stability, as well as services for health, nutrition, sanitation, and other more specialized needs, education can both sustain and save lives, particularly in crisis-affected, post-crisis, and refugee-hosting countries.

Access to quality education in crisis-affected contexts provides hope for a better future by equipping children and young people with the tools they need to reach their full potential and experience life-long success.

With the rapid closure of schools across the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, children and young people, especially those in crisis-affected contexts, have lost an important space that offered them stability, even as the environment around them grew ever more uncertain.

The economic shocks caused by COVID-19 have had devastating consequences by compounding the poverty and food insecurity many families were already facing, including those in contexts enduring pre-existing challenges.

The mental health of adults and children alike has deteriorated as they have been confined to their homes; government and non-government agencies alike have reported a significant increase in violence and other threats that specifically target children and young people.

Drawing from research and experience on previous infectious disease outbreaks and an emergent body of work from the current COVID-19 pandemic, this report highlights the primarily negative effects resulting from the combination of sudden school closures and restricted access to and availability of services, social networks, and other protective facilities for children and young people living in crisis-affected contexts.

The consequences of school closures on education and child protection can be categorized into three principal areas.

LOSS OF LEARNING AND IMPEDIMENTS TO PROVIDING INCLUSIVE, EQUITABLE,
QUALITY EDUCATION

School closures are having a significant negative influence on academic attainment and on social and emotional learning (SEL). To mitigate the loss of face-to-face instruction, education stakeholders have attempted to rapidly disseminate online and other distance learning resources, including lessons offered on the internet, television, and radio, as well as printed study materials. Analysis of these global efforts has produced several key findings.

  • The content and quality of distance education varies widely, even within a country, and children’s ability to engage in learning depends heavily on the resources and support available in individual households.
  • Many learners are struggling to access distance learning options, due to barriers related to information and communications technology, infrastructure, and digital literacy.
  • Challenges in access to and the availability of education have been exacerbated for children and young people living in crisis-affected and post-crisis contexts, as well as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Accessibility for children and young people with disabilities has been extremely limited across available distance learning platforms, many of which were not designed to be inclusive.
  • Other groups of children and young people have also been marginalized; girls in particular are less able to engage with the distance education offered, due to their household duties.
  • Across contexts, parental engagement—including their individual availability, level of education, ability or willingness to support their children’s learning at home while juggling multiple priorities—is a significant factor in the success or failure of remote learning modalities.
  • Without daily face-to-face contact with teachers, children and young people lose not only their teachers’ pedagogical expertise in facilitating participation and engagement with the content, including SEL, they also lose dependable routines and protective oversight.

NEGATIVE IMPACT ON CHILD WELL-BEING AND HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT

Schools are hubs for social services beyond academic learning, many of which encourage the enrollment and retention of children and young people who might otherwise be excluded from education. Critical services curtailed or lost due to school closures include the following:

  • At the peak of school closures, an estimated 396 million children and young people worldwide lacked access to school-based nutrition and nutritional supplement programs, which both combat malnutrition and incentivize parents to enroll their children in school, especially girls.
  • Children and young people with disabilities have lost access to specialized or rehabilitative care. This encompasses differentiated academic support and clinical services, which these children and young people disproportionately require. Outside the schools, such services are out of reach for families living in poverty.
  • Children and young people lack access to the formal mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services often provided in schools; integrating these services into the school day prevents stigmatization of those with mental health issues and “normalizes” the healing process, in particular for refugee children and young people.
  • School closures mean children and young people have lost important informal social amenities and safeguards, many of which are difficult to quantify yet are crucial to ensuring children’s and young people’s well-being and healthy development. Relationships with their peers and teachers can promote positive mental health, and the schools provide entry points into social networks for both pupils and their parents. This is particularly important for marginalized groups, such as lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, and/or intersex (LGBTQI) youth.

AMPLIFIED CHILD PROTECTION RISKS AND HARMS EXPERIENCED BY CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE

Schools aim to provide physical and emotional security and dependable routines for children, young people, and their families, especially in crisis-affected nations.

During school hours, children are productively occupied, and they are supervised by teachers and school administrators who have safeguarding responsibilities. During the lockdowns, the home or community has not been a place of safety for many children and young people, thus the child protection risks have multiplied, compounded by growing economic uncertainty, health-related concerns, and other domestic burdens:

  • There is growing evidence that dealing with a lack of routine and the structured activity schools provide creates negative feelings among children and young people, including a sense of isolation, all of which have severe effects on their mental health, particularly for those with existing MHPSS needs.
  • Research across child protection agencies worldwide shows a significant decrease in the availability of social support services, even as hotlines report increasing instances of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), child abuse, child labor, and other forms of exploitation and neglect.
  • In situations of armed conflict, the absence of school has deprived children and young people of the incentives that help them avoid enlisting in the armed forces. This creates a heightened risk of the recruitment and use of children and young people by armed forces and armed groups, which disproportionately target boys.
  • As families suffer pandemic-related economic shocks, children and young people are more vulnerable to engaging in hazardous and exploitative labor.
  • Refugee children and young people are often those most educationally and economically deprived. This includes having limited access to formal education, fewer opportunities for remote learning, and a higher risk of abandoning their education to enter the workplace.
  • Evidence suggests that there have been significant setbacks in recent progress toward gender equality, especially for girls, who are more likely to report that household duties prevent them from engaging in remote learning. Confronted with home confinement in a context of economic uncertainty, girls—especially adolescents—are at increased risk of child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM) and other forms of SGBV. Moreover, because schools are closed, which limits monitoring and reporting, cases of female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) are on the rise since the start of the pandemic.
  • With schools closed, children and young people with disabilities face acute risks. Their need for care at home may put additional stress on parents or caregivers accustomed to the support offered through the schools, and experts warn of increasing abuse and neglect of children and young people with disabilities.
  • Across all groups, the abuse suffered during school closures will likely have long-term consequences: in addition to causing significant mental health issues, sexual abuse can lead to sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and life-threatening complications while giving birth.

In sum, school closures have been shown to have a hugely negative impact on children and young people, immediately and in the long-term.

Looking ahead, the situation for vulnerable children and young people worldwide remains fragile. Before the pandemic, 127 million children and young people of primary and secondary school age were already out of school. The outbreak of COVID-19 put additional stress on already over-extended and under-resourced education systems around the world. Context-specific risks may prevent or delay the reopening of some schools, in particular those that have been the target of attacks or used as temporary housing during the crisis. However, even as schools reopen, there is the risk that children and young people from some marginalized populations will be excluded from re-enrollment or opt out of attending school because they need to work or have been married and/or become pregnant. Others will struggle to re-engage with schooling as they deal with the long-term effects of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

RECOMMENDATIONS

When confronted with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and future infectious disease outbreaks or other emergencies, policymakers must ensure that children and young people remain squarely at the center of their decision-making. Before future school closings occur, officials must strive to understand and weigh up the multitude of risks children and young people can and will face, along with the wider public health prerogatives.

The following key recommendations outline how best to respond to and recover from COVID-19 school closures and to prepare for future shocks:

  • Prioritize the identification of the most marginalized children and young people in each context, then address the systemic barriers that prevent their engagement with education and access to protective services.
  • To prevent children and young people from “falling through the cracks,” strengthen child protection and education systems and improve collaboration between stakeholders, prioritizing support for children and young people already out of school.
  • As schools reopen, emphasize outreach to the children and young people from marginalized and less-visible groups, who are most at risk of not returning or were already out of school.
  • As schools reopen, prioritize access and well-being over rapid academic catch-up.
  • Moving forward, provide ongoing training and strengthen the capacity of teachers and school administrators, as well as parents and caregivers, to support children’s and young people with their at-home learning, and their wider MHPSS needs.
  • Provide more equitable remote learning by strengthening education systems, reviewing existing materials and media, and developing new materials that are appropriate, learner centered, and useful for at-home learning.
  • Ensure that scholastic materials and distance learning modalities feature inclusive options for children and young people with a variety of disabilities.
  • Engage in ongoing planning and preparedness for future school closures in emergency situations, including improving water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities, reducing class sizes to accommodate social distancing, and improving resiliency and readiness to shift to distance modalities.
  • Increase predictable financing for education and child protection, including humanitarian and development aid.
  • Reliefweb
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