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.
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.
Climate crisis— UNICEF (@UNICEF) December 9, 2021
Emergencies are depriving children of their health and well-being. It's time we put the needs of children first in line for investment and last in line for cuts. More in our #UNICEF75 report.
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.