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COVID-19: The world’s poorest children can safely return to school if global leaders invest just £280 per student

London, 12 January – It would cost an estimated £37 billion to get children from the world’s poorest countries back to school following the disruptions caused by the pandemic, Save the Children said today.

Fears of a COVID-19 lost generation can be quashed if world leaders step up to ensure 136 million children can safely return to school.

Analysis published today in Save the Children's Save Our Education Now report found that it will cost an average of £280 per child to safely open schools again and get learning back on track in 59 of the world’s poorest countries.

The new figures follow research from Save the Children last year, which suggested some 10 million children may never return to school – while noting that this is likely to be a significant underestimate.

Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK, said:

“The UK Government has committed to making sure every girl gets 12 years of quality education. It will host the G7 this year and also plays a leadership role in the Global Partnership for Education. Fixing the global learning crisis was imperative even before the pandemic. Now, the UK and other donors must step up and ensure the life chances of the poorest and most marginalised children, including girls, are not robbed by this pandemic. Without urgent financing, the world risks a significant reversal in getting more children into school and learning.

“We cannot fail the next generation of doctors, nurses, scientists, and carers who are currently out of school. 2020 was the year we developed a vaccine, 2021 needs to be the year we invest in children’s futures to help mitigate all the damage caused by COVID-19.” 

As governments around the world prioritise healthcare to tackle the second wave of the virus, international donors need to work with national governments to fully fund a plan to safely return all children back to school. The priority should be the poorest and most marginalised students including girls at risk of dropping out of school, refugees and displaced children and children with disabilities.

Save the Children research has found that refugees are dropping out of school at a higher rate than other children due to economic hardship and because refugees are being left out of national education responses. In a recent survey of Al Hol, Roj and Areesha camps in North-East Syria, where at least 5,500 children have stopped going to school, 79 percent of teachers said this was due to pressure to work in order to support their families financially.

Even before the pandemic, The UN Refugee Agency estimated that in the countries where they had rigorous enough data, almost half of school-age refugee students were out of school.

As well as missing out on an education, children out of school are also vulnerable to child labour, child marriage and other forms of abuse.

As a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, Save the Children warned of a dramatic surge in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, with up to an additional 2.5 million girls at risk of child marriage over five years and adolescent pregnancies expected to rise by up to one million in 2020.

In Uganda despite some schools having re-opened, more than 13 million children remain out of school since the end of March last year, including 600,000 refugee children. In Nwoya district in northern Uganda, figures from the police and Ministry of Health (HMIS) show that cases of both teenage pregnancies and child marriage doubled, and rates of child labour tripled between April and June last year, while children were out of school. Due to difficulties in reporting these issues, the real picture is likely to be far more serious.

15-year-old Jonathan* is a South Sudanese refugee who lives in a camp in eastern Uganda. He misses going to school and worries for his friends. “Things have really changed since March last year,” he said. “What I’m now worrying about is that some of our friends who are girls are now getting pregnant because of the school closures. Some are dropping out of school because they have now got married. And some of the boys are going to work for other people, on their farms or in the market. Some of them have been doing heavy work and there is no food to eat – so at the end of the month they find they are becoming very thin and have health problems.”

Save the Children urges governments and donors to take five urgent steps to ensure that children who were in school prior to COVID-19 closures can safely return:

  1. Financial support for the world’s poorest families, so they can send their children to school and keep them healthy.
  2. Catch-up classes for students who re-enter the formal education system.
  3. Water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in schools, to make them COVID-19 safe for students, teachers and their families.
  4. National back to school communications campaigns to inform communities that it is safe for children to return.
  5. Effective training for teachers to keep everyone safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Watkins continued: ‘‘The pandemic is not just a public health crisis. It has also triggered a global education crisis. The future of millions of children is at stake. Yet the international community has spectacularly failed to put in place a plan of action to protect these children and combat the greatest education emergency in history.



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  • Save the Children has calculated that it will cost $370 (£280) per head for these measures to be implemented for children across the 59 countries that are eligible for international development assistance.
  • Save the Children is not advising when schools should re-open. That is for national governments to decide.
  • Save the Children calculates that more than 13 million children have been out of school in Uganda since March. This figure comes from research from August 2020 which found that 15 million children were out of school at that time and calculates that approximately 1.2 million children returned to school in October.
  • The figures from Nwoya district in Uganda are from the police and Ministry of Health between April and June last year, when children were out of school.
  • In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact on education, Save the Children is providing distance learning materials, such as books and home learning kits, working closely with governments and teachers to provide lessons and support via radio, television, phone, social media and messaging apps.
  • Save the Children is making sure children are safe at home and not missing out on the meals or menstrual hygiene kits they would usually receive at school. And it is providing guidance for parents and other caregivers to ensure they have the right information about how to support their children’s learning and wellbeing at home.
  • Save the Children is also working with education authorities to help plan for the safe return to school, advocating with and on behalf of children to ensure decision-makers are aware of their concerns.