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The spread of the novel coronavirus over the globe forced almost 300 million students to stay at home, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said on Thursday while recommending the use of distance learning programs to limit the disruption of education.

It’s “a figure without precedent,” said the Paris-based UN agency, noting that 13 countries have shut schools nationwide, impacting almost 300 million children and youth who would normally attend pre-primary to upper-secondary classes. A further nine countries have implemented localized school closures to prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19. Should these countries also order nationwide school closures, it would prevent an additional 180 million children and youth from attending school, it added. “While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

“We are working with countries to assure the continuity of learning for all, especially disadvantaged children and youth who tend to be the hardest hit by school closures,” she added. Warning about the impact of school closures on learning achievement and educational performance, UNESCO pledged to provide immediate support to countries, including solutions for inclusive distance learning. The UN organization will convene an emergency meeting of education ministers on March 10 to share responses and strategies to maintain the continuity of learning and assure inclusion and equity.

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