COVID-19 AND THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN
Children who contract COVID-19 appear to have less severe symptoms and lower mortality rates than other age groups. But in myriad other ways, the COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating effect on children, with potentially far-reaching and long-term negative impacts. More than 1.5 billion students are out of school, and widespread job and income loss and economic insecurity are likely to increase rates of child labor, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage.
This report outlines key human rights risks to children related to the COVID-19 crisis, and steps that governments should take to protect children’s rights in the pandemic, mitigate its devastating effects, and benefit children after the crisis is over.
According to UNESCO, more than 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were out of school due to COVID-19 on April 8, representing over 91 percent of the world’s student population. The crisis has exposed vast disparities in countries’ emergency preparedness, internet access for children, and availability of learning materials. For many children, the COVID-19 crisis will mean limited or no education, or falling further behind their peers. Children affected by school closures also miss the sense of stability and normalcy that schools provide.
School closures may disproportionately affect children who already experience barriers accessing education, or who are at higher risk of being excluded for a variety of reasons. These include children with disabilities, students in remote locations, asylum seekers and refugees, and those whose families have lost income as a result of job cuts or precarious employment or are otherwise in a difficult situation.
Many children from poor communities depend on schools for meals and key health services and information. Nearly half of the world’s schoolchildren, some 310 million, have relied on their school for a daily meal, including 100 million children in India, 48 million in Brazil, and over 18 million each in Africa.
UNESCO has recommended that countries “adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning.” Although much focus has turned to online learning platforms, many public schools are not set up to use them or don’t have the technology and equipment to run online teaching. Nearly half of the world has no access to the internet. In the United States, for example, one in five school-aged children don’t have access to a computer or high-speed internet at home. In China, some students have reportedly hiked for hours in search of a cell signal to listen to online classes on mountaintops.
Without exception, education policies focused on online learning in the wake of COVID-19 have highlighted longstanding inequities. Children living in the most disconnected places in the world also face the least dependable and slowest internet at the least affordable prices – if they are connected at all. Children living in countries that have imposed internet taxes and shutdowns have no hope of accessing online learning.
The rush to access online learning also highlights data privacy considerations for children. Children’s education data is far less protected than health data. Many countries have regulations that govern the appropriate uses and disclosures of personally identifiable health data, even during emergencies. But while children’s school data may be just as sensitive – revealing names, home addresses, behaviors, and other highly personal details that can harm children and families when misused – most countries don’t have data privacy laws that protect children. This means that governments will struggle to hold providers of internet education technologies – EdTech – accountable for how they handle children’s data.
Lists of suggested EdTech published by UNESCO and the Italian government, among others, illustrate these concerns. Some of these products have drawn criticism over how they collect, share, and store vast amounts of data on children, enable intrusive surveillance, or allegedly collect information on children without parental consent. No solution will be perfect, but the EdTech adopted now – and the data they collect – may long outlast today’s crisis.
Once the pandemic eases and governments are able to reopen schools, special measures will be needed to ensure that children, particularly adolescent girls who are most at risk of child marriage, and those at risk of child labor, come back to school. Financial support for school fees (which should be eliminated in public primary and secondary education), transportation, or other related school expenses may be needed for children whose families suffered economic hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis and wouldn’t be able to return to school otherwise. Governments should also enact measures to ensure inclusion of children with disabilities, who face barriers to accessing quality inclusive education even in normal circumstances and who, when they do enroll, often drop out before completing school.