Pirkka Tapiola is European Union ambassador to Thailand. Karin Hulshof is regional director for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to rethink policies that are keeping millions of children out of school and hindering their learning process. School closures since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 have resulted in an unprecedented and sudden disruption of children's education around the world. Across East Asia and Pacific, such closures have affected over 325 million children.
Most countries across the region reopened schools in the course of last year, but learning was severely affected. On average, children missed almost every second day of school. In the Philippines, schools remained completely closed throughout most of 2020. The same was true for most students in Indonesia.
In response to new outbreaks of COVID-19 in January, schools closed again in Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Thailand, further disrupting the education of children who had only recently returned to their classrooms. Online learning, as conceived today, is not a long-term solution for millions of disadvantaged children.
This new round of school closures has again put a spotlight on the digital divide. Around 80 million children are unable to access digital learning at home. The pandemic deepens the learning crisis. Before COVID-19, two-thirds of fifth-grade children in the region, those around 10 years of age, were unable to read or do math at the minimum level of learning. The World Bank estimates that the number of children not meeting the minimum requirements for reading has increased by 20% during school closures.
The longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return. UNESCO estimates that at least 2.7 million children across the region will not return to school once they reopen. This is on top of the 35 million in East Asia and Pacific who had already dropped out of the education system. When children do not go to school, they are at increased risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. Girls face the additional risk of teen pregnancy and early marriage.
We can still win the battle to educate our children. But we need to work even harder together to make a lasting difference to education outcomes in the region.
Governments should prioritize the reopening of schools. The benefits of keeping schools open far outweigh the costs of closing them. UNICEF and the EU also encourage governments to prioritize teachers in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, alongside front line health workers and high-risk populations.
We need to build on existing work and strike out in new, innovative directions. This means investing now so that the most vulnerable children can reenter education and stay in the system. Schools need to be safe and teachers should be supported to respond to the learning needs of children. Education systems need to be reshaped so that children and adolescents graduate with 21st-century skills.
Recently, we have seen impressive change, with many governments providing education online, on television and radio, and via mobile phones.
In Timor-Leste, more children can access remote learning through online platforms, video or radio compared to 2019. In Thailand, children from low-income families who are at risk of dropping out receive cash grants to support their efforts to keep children in schools. Vietnam adjusted the curriculum, reducing academic pressure and psychological and social stress on students and giving them a chance to catch up on missed learning. All governments and partners in the region are exploring better ways to deliver meaningful learning options for children of all ages and to improve schools
The green shoots of recovery and school system transformation are there.
Now it is time to nurture them. This is the moment to reimagine education systems, embrace grass-root innovations, community-based proposals and technology to reduce the digital gap, remove barriers and give all children the same access to modern, flexible and effective education systems.
Above all, education budgets must be protected from cuts as the global economic crisis bites. Education must be part of the COVID-19 recovery plan. Rather than diverting money away from education, there must be more investment to strengthen education systems. Education is essential to human development, which underlies all EU investments in international cooperation and will be boosted in EU development financing for the upcoming period. Building back better applies as much to education as to anything else.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to emerge from this crisis doing things differently, addressing inequalities through more sustainable and inclusive educational systems. Thus, we need to embrace the lessons learned during the pandemic and open schools with the aim of transforming them into authentic learning centers that provide children with the knowledge and skills they need.
Embarking on this huge undertaking means realizing that business as usual is not an option. If we learn the right lessons now, we can reimagine and deliver better education systems -- for this generation and the next.