At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren unable to access remote learning during COVID-19 school closures

At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – have been unable to access remote learning as COVID-19 shuttered their schools, according to a new UNICEF report released today.

At least 80 million of children unable to access remote learning live in Australia’s neighbouring East Asia Pacific region. Millions do not have access to internet or digital services, meaning that school closures have put their education on hold.

“Though school closures have affected children around the world, huge efforts have been made to provide alternative learning options and most have been able to continue their learning online with support from teachers and ongoing classes,” said Felicity Butler-Wever, Director of International Programs at UNICEF Australia. “However for 463 million children globally, and 80 million in our neighbouring region, there was no such thing as remote learning.

“Many of these children live in rural communities and are disadvantaged by a lack of digital connectivity and access to smart devices that have allowed other children to keep learning. We need to close the digital divide to ensure that every child can access education, even during a pandemic.”

At the height of nationwide and local lockdowns, nearly 1.5 billion school children were affected by school closures. The Remote Learning Reachability report outlines the limitations of remote learning and exposes deep inequalities in access.

The report uses a globally representative analysis on the availability of home-based technology and tools needed for remote learning among pre-primary, primary, lower-secondary and upper-secondary schoolchildren, with data from 100 countries. Data include access to television, radio and internet, and the availability of curriculum delivered across these platforms during school closures.

Although the numbers in the report present a concerning picture, UNICEF warns the situation is likely far worse. Even when children have the technology at home, they may not be able to learn remotely through those platforms due to competing factors in the home including pressure to do chores, being forced to work or a poor environment for learning.
 
REGION
MINIMUM PROPORTION OF SCHOOLCHILDREN UNABLE TO ACCESS REMOTE LEARNING (%
MINIMUM NUMBER OF SCHOOLCHILDREN UNABLE TO ACCESS REMOTE LEARNING
EAST AND SOUTHERN AFRICA
49%
67 MILLION
WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA
48%
54 MILLION
EAST ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
20%
80 MILLION
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
40%
37 MILLION
SOUTH ASIA
38%
147 MILLION
EASTERN EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA
34%
25 MILLION
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
9%
13 MILLION
GLOBAL
31%
463 MILLION

Schoolchildren from the poorest households and those living in rural areas are by far the most likely to miss out during closures, the report says. Globally, 72 per cent of schoolchildren unable to access remote learning live in their countries’ poorest households. In upper-middle-income countries, schoolchildren from the poorest households account for up to 86 per cent of students unable to access remote learning. Globally, three quarters of schoolchildren without access live in rural areas. 

In Cambodia, Sun Sakada, an eight-year-old boy in grade three, speaks of the challenges with accessing homework and updates from school, “It’s difficult learning online. Teachers are sending lessons and homework in the Facebook Messenger group.

“I can receive them on my mum’s phone but when her phone credit runs out, I have no way of knowing what the homework is and keep missing out on lessons.”

UNICEF is supporting Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) to provide alternative learning opportunities to students, including online ‘e-learning’ classes broadcast through various social media platforms, TV and radio, aiming to reach every household in Cambodia.

Across the East Asia Pacific region, UNICEF continues to work with partners on the ground to enable children to keep learning. The Learning Passport, a remote learning platform developed in partnership between UNICEF, Microsoft and the University of Cambridge, has gone a long way to reach students in Timor Leste through TV, radio and online classes. Additionally, knowing that not all students could access these resources, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, partnered to distribute printed learning materials to students in their homes.
In Papua New Guinea, UNICEF and the National Department of Education mobilised quickly when schools closed to reach children in remote communities, including reaching over 370,000 students via radio broadcast of lessons. Despite this, in a rapid assessment undertaken in April, 75% of schools reported that many of their students don’t have access to radio. Accordingly, ensuring teachers and students have access to print resources is an essential part of the ongoing education response.

The Remote Learning Reachability report also notes varying rates of access across age groups, with the youngest students most likely to miss out on remote learning during their most critical years of learning and development:
  • Around 70 per cent of schoolchildren of pre-primary-age – 120 million children – cannot be reached, largely due to challenges and limitations to online learning for young children, lack of remote learning programs for this education category, and lack of home assets for remote learning.  
  • At least 29 per cent of primary schoolchildren – 217 million students – cannot be reached. At least around 24 per cent of lower-secondary schoolchildren – 78 million students – were not reached.
  • Upper-secondary schoolchildren were the least likely to miss out on remote learning with at least around 18 per cent – 48 million schoolchildren– not having the technological assets to access remote learning. 
UNICEF urges governments to prioritize the safe re-opening of schools when they begin easing lockdown restrictions. When reopening is not possible, UNICEF urges governments to incorporate compensatory learning for lost instructional time into school continuity and reopening plans. School opening policies and practices must include expanding access to education, including remote learning, especially for marginalized groups. Education systems must also be adapted and built to withstand future crises.

As part of its Reimagine campaign, UNICEF aims to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from aggravating a lasting crisis for children, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, UNICEF is calling for urgent investment to bridge the digital divide, reach every child with remote learning, and, most critically, prioritize the safe reopening of schools.  

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Notes to editors:
The analysis uses findings from the UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures joint survey. The number of children potentially reached by broadcast media or internet solutions are based on the availability of related assets (TV, radio and internet) at home, not their actual use by children. Hence the number of children “potentially reached” are upper estimates of the reality of children “actually reached”. Paper-based coverage is not accounted for due to lack of reliable data.
The analysis does not focus on out-of-school children. For the latest data on out-of-school children visit: https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2019-12/SOWC-2019.pdf   

UNICEF’s Framework for Reopening Schools, issued jointly with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP and the World Bank, offers practical advice for national and local authorities. The guidelines focus on policy reform; financing requirements; safe operations; compensatory learning; wellness and protection and reaching the most marginalized children.

For more information please contact:
Gemma Hill, UNICEF Australia, ghill@unicef.org.au, +61 432 233 675
About UNICEF Australia:

During COVID-19, UNICEF Australia is providing immediate relief and advocating for children to help them recover, rebound, reimagine and create a stronger future. UNICEF Australia’s COVID-19 Children’s Response Appeal will support the health, safety, wellbeing and education of children throughout the pandemic and beyond.