Aug. 4 (UPI) -- U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called for nations to place the reopening of schools as a top priority in their response to the coronavirus pandemic as their shuttering the world over has caused the largest-ever disruption of education.
In a video message published early Tuesday, the U.N. head said in mid-July school closures in more than 160 countries affected at least 1 billion students with at least 40 million children locked out of their all-important pre-school year of education in an attempt to stymie the spread of COVID-19.
The world was already confronting an educational crisis prior to the pandemic as more than 250 million children were out of school and only a quarter of secondary school children in developing countries were graduating with basic skills, he said, adding that these issues have been further impacted by the coronavirus.
"Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities," he said.
Guterres said the world was at "a defining moment" concerning education, calling on governments to make school reopenings a priority in a new policy briefing that was published alongside his video message and a new campaign called "Save Our Future."
"Once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority," he said.
Governments must balance the health risks against the risks to children's education as well as the impact on women's labor force participation when considering reopening, he said, as the school closure knock-on effects impact not just education but also child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality, among many other concerns.
"The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come," he said.
Along with placing school reopenings at the top of governments' agendas, the policy brief calls for education to be prioritized in financing decisions and education budgets to be protected and increased as well as targeting education initiatives to reach those at the greatest risk of being left behind.
On a positive note, he called on governments to embrace the opportunity the crisis has presented to reimagine education, stating the future of education is here.
"We can take a leap towards forward-looking systems that deliver quality education for all," he said, adding, "We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future."
Since the coronavirus first emerged in China late last year, more than 18.2 million people have been infected worldwide resulting in nearly 700,000 deaths by early Tuesday, according to data collected by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.