UN children's agency has urged governments in South Asia to reopen schools, warning that the consequences of interrupted learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic could last decades.

One study in India showed that the proportion of grade 3 children who could read a grade 1 level text fell from around 42 percent in 2018 to just 24 percent in 2020, said UNICEF.
One study in India showed that the proportion of grade 3 children who could read a grade 1 level text fell from around 42 percent in 2018 to just 24 percent in 2020, said UNICEF. (Reuters)

UNICEF has urged India and its neighbours to fully reopen schools to address the interrupted education of more than 400 million children whose classrooms were shut by the coronavirus pandemic.

A report by the UN children's agency published on Thursday warned that the consequences of interrupted learning in South Asia could last decades.

"The cost of inaction would be a weaker labour force in a few years, it is going to show," George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF's regional director for South Asia, told AFP New Agency. 

Schools in Bangladesh were closed for almost 18 months, one of the longest closures in the world, UNICEF said.

Meanwhile, schools in other South Asian countries were shut for an average of 31.5 weeks between March 2020 and August this year.

One study in India, cited in the report, showed that the proportion of grade 3 children who could read a grade 1 level text fell from around 42 percent in 2018 to just 24 percent in 2020.

Being out of school also led to students experiencing psychosocial distress, poor mental health and increased risk of violence. Girls were at a high risk of early marriage.

READ MORE: Will school closures have a long-term impact on children?

Digital divide

School shutdowns "happened in a region where there were no strong conditions for remote learning," said Laryea-Adjei.

Around 80 million children in the region are unable to access digital learning at home, the report said, highlighting a "digital divide" that has deepened the learning crisis.

"Access to internet and devices was very uneven," said Laryea-Adjei. "And we see a severe learning deficiency, especially among poor communities and girls — because often boys are more trusted with technology."

According to a UNESCO database, schools in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan remain only partially open, while those in Pakistan and Sri Lanka are fully open.

"The longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return," UNICEF said, estimating that at least 2.7 million children across the region will not return to school once they reopen.

The report also warned that child mortality is projected to rise as pandemic disruptions to health services have left millions of children without lifesaving vaccines.

UNICEF called on governments in South Asia to safely resume in-person learning and ensure that students catch up, as well as improving connectivity.

READ MORE: Explained: How Covid-19 risks prolonging India’s literacy crisis

Source: TRTWorld and agencies