In an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, classrooms have been shuttered across the world, causing a record number of students to miss school, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said on Tuesday.
Close to 363 million learners worldwide have been impacted said UNESCO, as it convened a videoconference of higher education officials to step up an emergency response to minimize learning disruptions worldwide.
According to data from the agency, the COVID-19 crisis is keeping one-in-five students worldwide away from school, so far, and an additional one-in-four from higher education classes.
Fifteen countries have ordered nationwide school closures and 14 have implemented localized closures – spanning Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.
“We are entering uncharted territory and working with countries to find hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
She maintained that as countries try to prepare their response, “international cooperation is vital to share the most effective approaches and support students, teachers and families”.
UNESCO is stepping up its support to ensure innovation and inclusion continues, despite disruptions, and exacerbate inequality, through measures like distance learning, in multiple languages.
UNESCO’s expertise in open and distance learning spans teacher-training platforms, e-learning school models, and the development of other Information and Communication Technology.
“We are facing an unusual situation with a large number of countries affected by the same issue at the same time”, said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education. “We need to come together not only to address the immediate educational consequences of this unprecedented crisis, but to build up the longer-term resilience of education systems”.
To steer the global response, UNESCO announced the creation of a UNESCO-COVID19 Emergency Task Force to support national responses and share effective policy responses – with a focus on the most vulnerable countries.
International cooperation vital to beat the virus
Meanwhile, the Presidents of the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council were briefed on the UN’s preparedness relating to COVID-19.
Globally around 110,000 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in more than 100 countries, which have resulted in more than 3,800 deaths and left several Member States dealing with severe outbreaks.
“No one is in any doubt that we are facing a global challenge which requires international cooperation”, said Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, maintaining that the coronavirus will only be tackled “through a multilateral response” in which the UN “must lead by example”.
He stressed that the UN should take a “coordinated and coherent approach”, making decisions on whether major meetings can go ahead, following consistent principles and guidelines over issues such as business travel, lest public trust in the UN be undermined.
Noting that the Secretariat has developed a set of criteria and risk assessment methodology, he said, “we have started the process looking at scaling down, postponing and/or cancelling meetings, as appropriate”.
“The key here is to ensure public health and safety and at the same time ensure continuity of business”, Mr. Muhammad-Bande spelled out.
Changes in New York and Geneva
The UN Spokesperson in New York , said in a note to correspondents on Tuesday, that “out of an abundance of caution and following the decision to reduce the number of staff present in the UN Secretariat, it has been decided to close the complex to the general public and to temporarily suspend all guided tours, until further notice.”
“As the Secretary-General has said, the health and safety of staff is a matter of his utmost priority and concern”, said Stéphane Dujarric. “The United Nations will continue to monitor the situation closely and further measures may be taken as circumstances evolve.”
Hi Spokesperson said that as of the middle of Tuesday, the Secretariat had not been advised of any cases amongst UN staff in New York.
In Geneva, UN personnel were also notified that while essential activities should continue, including the current session of the Human Rights Council, other activities would be subject to postponement or cancellation.
The Palais des Nations is also considering how to put the latest recommendations on telecommuting issued by the Swiss authorities into practice.