The United Nations (UN) is sounding the alarm that the continuation of distance learning during the Covid-19 crisis may leave students without the right technology tools in an academic abyss.

During remarks earlier this month, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Henrietta Fore said at the pandemic’s peak, brick and mortar schools closed in 192 countries and 192 million students were affected.

Nine months later, UNICEF said 872 million are still not back in a physical school. While many are adjusting to what is largely considered a more dynamic and structured distance learning environment than they experienced in the Spring, UNICEF said there are still a sizable percentage that are facing a major educational deficit due to the digital divide.

Some 463 million students received no distance learning during the pandemic because of lack of Internet access, computers or mobile devices.

Without access to schools students are at higher risk

A recent UN survey of 158 countries found that one in four nations had no firm date for allowing students to return to school. UN officials noted that protracted periods of time away from educational institutions have implications beyond the classroom.

Schools provide a safety net for students, without which children are placed a higher risk for physical and emotional abuse, child labor and other issues.  These students are far less likely to break the cycle of poverty.

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The UN did cite positive examples of schools that were adapting their physical classrooms successfully during the time of Covid. Schools in Senegal are spacing desks to keep students physically distant. Rwanda is constructing new classrooms.  Egypt is staggering school hours to support smaller cohorts of students.

However, big concerns remain about unaddressed issues in making education available to all children. This year at least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school because of the pandemic.

Technology clearly will play a bigger role going forward, even when all children are able to return to a physical classroom. The learnings from 2020 will inform how students learn for years to come. Innovations in areas like virtual reality have the potential to open up future learning opportunities to all children. But without access, those opportunities are off the table and children are left behind.