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UN chief warns of 'generational catastrophe' due to school closures worldwide

UN chief warns of 'generational catastrophe' due to school closures worldwide
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United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said nations should prioritize safely reopening schools, warning of a “generational catastrophe” if children are deprived of public education for too long.

In a Tuesday video message, Guterres said at least 1 billion students have been affected by school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. At least 40 million children lost access to pre-school education, he said.

The pandemic, he said, has exacerbated an ongoing educational crisis in developing countries, where he said only a quarter of secondary school pupils graduated with basic skills.

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"Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities," he said. "Once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority."

The U.N. chief said that although governments must take public health into account, they should also bear in mind the school closures’ impact on wider issues like gender equality.

The continued closures, he noted, also affect issues in the development world ranging from child marriage to women’s participation in the workforce.

"The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come," Guterres said.

He added that the pandemic also presents opportunities for national and local governments to reimagine potentially outmoded educational models.

"We can take a leap towards forward-looking systems that deliver quality education for all," he said. "We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future."

The fall school year has become a hot-button issue in the U.S., with the White House pushing for a full return to in-person schooling and threatening the funding of schools that do not fully reopen. Several school systems have announced an entirely online fall semester, and polling indicates parents broadly oppose a full reopening.