The revelation by Unicef of the extent to which children around the world have been deprived of learning in the crisis caused by the pandemic puts a number to what has been suspected, and written about, for weeks. The United Nations Children’s Fund has revealed that for 463 million children ~ 1 in 3 worldwide ~ “there was no such thing as remote learning.”

In its new report, Unicef has highlighted the inadequacies of remote learning and exposed the massive inequalities in access. The report in a sense confirms the worst misgivings of educators and presents conclusions that ought to shake up governments, especially in disparity-ridden countries such as India.

Poverty, disparities, age and competing factors are responsible for impaired access, and together they make two things imperative for governments ~ one, to prioritise safe reopening of schools and two, to make urgent investments to bridge the digital divide. The report says that in households with some access to remote learning, it is the youngest children ~ those in the most critical years for learning and development ~ who are most likely to be deprived.

It points out that children with access could also suffer from competing factors and lists these as being pressure to do chores, being forced to work, a poor environment for learning, and lack of support in using the online or broadcast curriculum. The report, according to Unicef, uses a globally representative analysis on the availability of home-based technology and tools needed for remote learning among pre-primary, primary, lower-secondary and upper-secondary schoolchildren, with data from 100 countries.

Data included access to television, radio and internet, and the availability of curriculum delivered across these platforms during school closures. It concludes that the situation in South Asia is particularly bad, behind only Africa, with 38 per cent of children ~ totalling 147 million ~ unable to access remote learning. When added to the numbers of children who were out of school even before the pandemic struck, these figures present a startling story of deprivation.

Of course, governments will be prone to shrug off the figures on the basis they are helpless against an “act of God”, but nearly six months after the first lockdowns were announced in South Asia, there is little to suggest that education has been given the importance it deserves. Certainly, in India the constitutional right to free education has been kept suspended for months on end.

For the most part, entitled sections of the citizenry have been lulled into believing that online classes and tutorials provide an adequate education and have sought reasons to keep children home, rather than send them to school. Poorer sections that were induced to enrol their children with the promise of a free meal have of course been deprived of both education and food. Governments, educators and parents would do well to study Unicef’s Framework for Reopening Schools and seek a way out of this impasse.