UNICEF estimates that 40 percent of all school-aged children across Eastern and Southern Africa are not in school mostly due to Covid-19 induced closures.
The re-closing of schools mid-year due to recent Covid-19 surges has affected more than 32 million children.
Some of the schoolchildren failed to return when their schools opened earlier this year.
That is in addition to an estimated 37 million children who were out of school before the pandemic.
“Although the number of children out of school constantly fluctuates depending on the local context, the fact that an estimated 40 percent of the region’s children are out of school is shocking,” said Lieke van de Wiel, UNICEF deputy regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
“We urge all Governments to prioritize education and ensure that schools remain open and safe.
“For the sake of the individual child, but also for the future of their communities and countries.”
With much of Africa in the throes of a new Covid-19 wave, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Uganda recently re-closed their schools nationwide.
Zimbabwe extended the academic winter break resulting in continued school closures.
Rwanda and Mozambique partially closed schools in some of the areas worst affected by the virus.
South Africa opened schools this week following an extension of the winter break because of a Covid-19 uptake.
UNICEF estimates that currently, some 69 million children are out of school in the region, due to Covid-19 closures as well as a range of other factors.
The other factors include the inability of parents to pay school or transportation fees, child labour due to poverty, girls dropping out because of pressures to marry or inability to afford sanitary napkins during menstrual cycles, and access challenges for children with disabilities.
Some African children have had access to online learning, but millions have little or no access to the internet, computers, or phones.
Going to school not only offers the basic learning needed to help break the cycle of poverty, but it also protects from harmful practices such as early marriage, pregnancies, or abuse at home or on the streets, and can ensure a daily, nutritious meal.
“We have experienced a steep learning curve since the outbreak of the pandemic both in terms of keeping schools safe but also on how damaging it is for children and their communities when their classrooms are closed,” said Van de Wiel.
“The impacts of closures – both in the short and in the long term – are too vast to justify persisting with this approach.
Online learning alone cannot substitute the overall benefits of children physically being in school, having fun, and learning from friends.
When containment measures are being discussed and agreed, schools must be the last to close and the first to open.”
UNICEF is supporting the efforts of the Ministries of Education and Health to work closely together to adopt strategies that allow for real-time, evidence monitoring of the Covid-19 context, and responding with relevant, localised measures.
Nationwide school closures must be the very last resort.
Evidence collected since the start of the pandemic shows that children and schools are not the main drivers of the pandemic. So far, the health risks to children from COVID-19 have remained low.
More than a year since schools first closed in the region, UNICEF and partners have accumulated a large body of knowledge about how to reduce the risks of the virus to children, teachers and their families.
“Given that one-fifth of all school-aged children were already out of school pre-pandemic, there is no doubt that these continuing disruptions are further fuelling the world’s and the continent’s learning crisis,” said Van de Wiel adding that the crisis was, “heading towards becoming a learning catastrophe”.
Twelve out of 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have fully open schools, and 3 have partially open schools.
UNICEF commends health and education ministries that have taken the decision to reopen schools while applying proven safety precautions as well as prioritising teacher vaccination.
The pandemic is also exacerbating an already precarious education financing situation.
Only five governments of the 21 countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region were spending at least 20 percent of their budgets on education as per the pre-crisis Education For All target.
UNICEF said governments urgently need support to further invest in meeting the conditions to keep schools open and safe.
They need support to ensure the availability of masks, sufficient ventilation, and social distancing.
Apart from sufficient desks and chairs, water and hygiene facilities, many schools need resources to support catch-up on learning.