21st March 2002, Afghan New Year, was the most humbling and memorable day of my working life. I was coordinating a “Back To School” campaign in Northern Afghanistan, and the 21st was the target date for opening of schools. This was the first major national reform after after a post-Taliban peace agreement signed a few months earlier. Rebuilding education was seen as a peace dividend for the Afghan people and a symbol of hope for their children on the first day of the first peaceful Spring after 23 years of war.
In this case, Back To School was a slightly misleading campaign title. There had never been more than 10% of children in school in Afghan history. If large numbers of children did go, they wouldn’t be going “back” to school. Most would be going for the very first time and would be the first in their families ever to attend school.
We worked for the preceding 60 days in one of the biggest logistical operations in UN history with the aim of creating an improvised national school system. Millions of classroom tents, text books and school backpacks were delivered via air. We distributed them to makeshift schools across the country, often via donkey or camel train. Many villages were not accessible by road or the routes had been badly war-damaged. A teaching workforce was built mainly from scratch by training anyone with a high school diploma on the basics of teaching. Schools were established in tents, fields, houses and former factories. In some cases. deadly land mines had to be cleared first. The campaign was intense, rapid and exhausting, but at 4 am on the the 21st March we put the final pin in a map. It showed every community in our zone had a designated school space, a teacher and supplies.
Just a few hours later we woke up to see the streets full of children hurrying in different directions to their first ever class. A total of 3 million children went to school that day. Seeing this was indescribable. It wasn’t just about learning. We knew that hungry children would receive lunch, traumatised and neglected children would receive attention, acknowledgement and maybe a sense of belonging. We knew that if children learned to read and write in school today, they would be less likely to die while giving birth or through preventable disease tomorrow. School connected those children to an enchanted world of learning. More than that, it is an accelerator for every other aspect of healthy child development and wellbeing.
The absence of education was a severe deprivation that the Afghan people yearned to overcome, for their children and their future. Similar struggles in different parts of the world have dramatically increased school access. Prior to the pandemic, 91% of the world’s schools age children were enrolled. This was unimaginable a few decades ago.
Todays school closures, affecting some 1.3 billion children globally, have momentarily reversed these gains. They affect all children, but have harmed the most vulnerable in three devastating and potentially life-lasting ways that :
- School closures exacerbate existing inequalities of access, quality and attainment for the poorest and most vulnerable children everywhere. Hard fought gains in attendance and access for female, Roma, indigenous or other excluded groups are under threat. Attention and resources risk being diverted away from a pre-covid learning crisis where half of the world’s children are in school but not really learning. Remote learning remains deeply unequal. Here in New York the 300,000 children who don’t have digital access are the poorest and already blighted by the lowest attainment and opportunities in the education system.
- 370 million of the worlds poorest children are missing out on vital school meals. These are children at risk of malnutrition and depend on school feeding programmes for basic health. Further to this, school is often a key community centre for monitoring overall child health. Health or nutrition deficits in childhood are not momentary, they impact development with life-lasting costs. School closures are a threat to the health and nutritional status of children
- At least 20% of children in any given society are affected by multiple forms of neglect, abuse and dysfunctional parenting at home. Only a fraction of them become child protection cases with dedicated and active social work support. For the rest, a soothing relationship with a teacher and school friends that can help them find a pathway to a better future and rebuild self belief. These relationships have been cut off with school closures. We know that unaddressed trauma in childhood is a major driver of poor mental and physical health throughout life and worse outcomes on almost every wellbeing measure.
The safe reopening of schools needs to be an urgent priority for governments everywhere. Remote learning is only a good alternative when schools are closed as a last resort. But as the UK Commissioner for Children Anne Longfield recently pointed out schools must be the last public space to close and the first to open. When there is a possibility to ease social distancing measures, it should be schools first not pubs!
It is a realistic proposition in the 21st century to set a target of connecting every child, every where to digital learning. This makes school systems more resilient to shocks and it can also network kids into public health and social work systems when direct access is not possible. Furthermore, the current digital gap is one of the major determinants of learning inequality. This needs huge innovation and investment, but it is achievable.
As much as disruption to schooling threatens our economic recovery, it also harms social fabric. Prior to the pandemic we were more atomised, polarised and lonely than ever, amidst an onslaught of identity conflict and receding communal values. School is the one place where children are socialised together and with common purpose and expectations. It is our great hope for healing, for binding and for belonging. Along with public health and social insurance, our educations systems are an endeavour that has propelled our societies forward and helped us to flourish. The longer they remain closed, the more difficult it is to narrow the gaps on quality, access and attainment and the wounds inflicted on children affected by poverty, exclusion or trauma. Thats why we need to prioritise the reopening of schools above all else.