Estimates point to around 1.6 billion children globally - more than 90% of all school students - have been affected by pandemic school closures, a situation which threatens to widen wealth inequalities both within and between countries.
“We’re running the risk of a lost generation,” U.N. education expert Robert Jenkins told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s a now-or-never moment to turn things around.”
Without urgent action, many countries could end up without the skilled workers they need for their future development, said Jenkins, head of education at U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
He is also increasingly concerned about the risk of social instability in countries where a large number of youths are left without skills, jobs or hope.
Children in low- and middle-income nations have been disproportionately affected as their schools tended to shut for longer and they were less able to access remote learning, UNICEF was further reported as saying by Reuters.
There are no global figures on the numbers who have dropped out. But evidence from Uganda - where schools reopened in January after being shut for a record 22 months - suggests up to 30% of children may not return to class.
School closures have increased child labour, adolescent pregnancies and early marriages, children’s rights activists say. And many parents impoverished by lockdowns can no longer afford to send their children to school.
The World Bank says classroom shutdowns could cost children $17 trillion in lifetime earnings - the equivalent of 14% of today’s global gross domestic product (GDP) - as education losses limit their future opportunities.
Educators say the world is at a crossroads. Reopening classrooms is not enough - schools must assess children and adapt curriculums to help them catch up.
Evidence from past crises such as the 2005 Pakistan earthquake show learning losses may even grow after children return to school if teaching does not adjust to meet their needs.
A common problem worldwide has been identified, with some teachers saying children have not only forgotten what they have learnt, but how to learn.
But as Reuters reveals, education was in crisis even before the pandemic, with 53% of 10-year olds in low- and middle-income countries unable to read a simple story, the World Bank says, warning this could now soar to 70%, with potential consequences lasting decades.
And children have not only missed learning. They have also lost opportunities to develop social skills with friends, play sport and, for some, escape troubled homes beset by abuse.
Many have struggled with feelings of isolation, and an estimated 5.2 million are grieving the loss of a parent or carer from COVID-19.
UNICEF says schools must take a holistic approach as they welcome children back, addressing their mental, psychosocial and physical wellbeing.
In many countries, girls have been disproportionately impacted. They often have less access to technology than their brothers, and are more likely to have to help with domestic chores when classrooms shut.
Parents may also prioritise sending a son back to school over a daughter if money is tight.
But for hundreds of thousands of girls there is another barrier to resuming lessons – they have become pregnant.
In 2020, aid agency World Vision estimated 1 million girls across sub-Saharan Africa may drop out because of pregnancies.
Rwanda and Sierra Leone have received praise for measures to reintegrate young mothers back into schools. But stigma, poverty and lack of childcare could still conspire to keep many out of class.
Educators say governments must do far more to assess the numbers who have left school, and address obstacles preventing their return.
Many children have quit to earn money. Globally, 9 million risk being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 because of the pandemic, according to UNICEF.
Thomson Reuters Foundation, is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Also see news.trust.org.