COVID-19 means millions of children are out of school – here’s how we can help them

COVID-19 means millions of children are out of school – here’s how we can help them
"The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption to education in history."
United Nations, August 2020
by kristen johnston, canadian feed the children
september 2020

As the world decides whether students can safely return to school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, teachers and children wonder what the future holds for their education. As of early September 2020, each of our partner countries implemented a different school reopening plan for the rest of the year and into 2021:

  • Across Canada, students return to the classroom in a staggered manner throughout September, including many schools in our Indigenous partner communities.
  • In Ghana, starting October 5, only Form 2 Senior High School and Form 2 Junior High School students can return to complete crucial exams needed for future entry into upper education. Students in all other forms stay at home until at least January 2021.
  • For Ethiopia, Bolivia and Uganda, school is out until at least January 2021.

In August, the United Nations stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has “created the largest disruption to education in history with prolonged school closures that could further entrench inequalities in access to learning.” With children out of school, especially in countries where receiving an education is already a challenge, what can we do right now to support their future success?


A mother and her young daughter posing for the camera in front of their house

Many parents like Yoratsi's are facing unemployment, which makes providing meals difficult.

As it stands, over 1.5 billion children worldwide are out of school as a direct result of the pandemic, and 370 million children are missing school meals. Students run the risk of not only falling behind in their education, but also falling deeper into poverty.

Many parents rely on schools to provide their children not only an education, but daily school meals that nourish their children and ease their own burden of paying for extra food. With schools being closed, putting food on the table has become a near impossible task for many parents.

At home my mom cooks veggies but some days we do not eat meat because my father lost his job,” 7-year-old Yoratsi in Bolivia tells us.

Like Yoratsi’s father, many parents around the world lost their jobs due to COVID-19, impacting household incomes and food security.

A mother stands in her home garden next to her preteen daughter who is holding her infant little brother

Like many children globally, Suraiya (right) is disappointed that she cannot continue her education at school because of the virus.

The pandemic ... has decreased my family’s - and most households’ - income.” says Memunatu, a mother of five in Ghana. “Most customers now buy in small quantities because their incomes too are affected. Food prices have increased in our market which makes it hard.”

Once the pandemic hit, her koshe (bean cake) stall started losing business at the market, so she is stretching her savings from her self help group to ensure her children have enough to eat.

Memunatu’s daughter, 13-year-old Suraiya, works with her mother at the stall now that her school is closed, but it’s taking an emotional toll. “I feel disturbed always staying at home. Besides helping my mother to sell her koshe and supporting in farm work, I virtually do nothing. I miss going to school so much and cannot wait for school to resume,” Suraiya tells us.

It is estimated that hunger will double this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 265 million people in low and middle-income countries under threat of severe hunger and an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five at risk of extreme undernourishment.


While all students could potentially fall through the cracks because of the pandemic, adolescent girls are the most in danger of being left behind, and are at increased risk of severe gender-based violence and exploitation.

Two young children sit in chairs in front of their home studying

When school is out, girls like 12-year-old Shonise (pictured right) are at higher risk of early marriage, trafficking, and domestic violence.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was already estimated that over 130 million girls worldwide were out of school, and that number will only increase from the lasting effects of the virus. Schools provide girls living in tumultuous households a safe space to go every day where they can also receive menstrual support and hygiene education.

When girls are not in school, they are at higher risk of gender and sexual based violence in their home, early and forced marriage, teenage pregnancy, and trafficking. With COVID-19 shutting down schools worldwide, millions of girls could be facing dangerous or life threatening situations.

There are cases of domestic violence in the students’ homes,” explains Grace, an educator in Uganda. “Some girls have been married. Some girls are not coming back to school ever as they’ve gotten pregnant because of trafficking.” This is the reality for many young and adolescent girls, which is only exacerbated by the pandemic.

A woman stands in front of a brick wall, smiling for the camera

Alice, an educator in Uganda, fears for the safety and future of her female students.

When asked about the safety of her students, Alice, another teacher in Uganda, told us, “Some families are having a single meal a day, others failing to even get a solid meal for a day and surviving on black tea and porridge. Others are sending their girls to work as housemaids, others do garden work, others are porters at construction sites all because they are fending for their families - and these are children we are talking about. Girls are selling items in markets to earn money for their families instead of learning at home, and many girls are being lured into unsavoury work and run the risk of pregnancy.

Children in Bolivia are also being sent away to do day labour to supply extra funds for their families, jeopardizing their chances of returning to school when classes resume.

For students in Uganda, schools provide a safe space for girls where they are educated about the dangers of early marriage, trafficking, and domestic violence. Teachers lead classes on proper hygiene and supply girls with sanitary pads so they do not have to leave the classroom when menstruating.

While many of the teachers like Alice in Uganda visited to their female student’s houses to provide them with menstrual products and to check in with them, it isn’t enough. “I always wonder whether parents can support their children in the same way the school does with teaching girls to stay safe. I know most parents are afraid to talk with their children about these topics and in the end, these girls easily fall victim to manipulation – and we can easily lose those girls. Being out of school for this long will strongly affect them.”


A young girl stands in her school uniform, posing for the camera

A uniform for a student like 13-year-old Charity could mean the difference between being in school, or staying at home. Uniform costs are increasing as a result of COVID-19.

Over 20 million girls may have dropped out of school forever because of the pandemic, whether through early marriage, pregnancy, forced labour, or increased school expenses. Parents in Uganda and Ghana told us that school fees, uniforms, supplies and books will all be sold at inflated prices to compensate for the economic loss from COVID-19, which provides additional challenges for parents to send girls to school.

As it stands, children need a uniform to attend school in Ghana and Uganda, and if a uniform is damaged, the student will not be allowed in school.

Some girls come from families who can’t afford new uniforms, and when their uniforms get torn, they don’t have money to repair them or buy new ones. Then they feel ashamed and some end up not coming back to school,” 12-year-old Annet in Uganda tells us.

With schooling fees on the rise, in addition to the already rising food costs, it’s going to prove challenging for many parents to both feed their children and keep them in school. Over 100 million people could be thrown into extreme poverty this year as a result of the pandemic.


Canadian Feed The Children, with support from our local partners and our donors, provided family food boxes, community sanitization training, and handwashing stations for various communities worldwide to help combat the virus and supply extra food to families who need it most.

To ensure that there are no disruptions in education with schools being closed, our local Ugandan partner HUYSLINCI coordinated visits between teachers and students to drop off school worksheets and scholastic materials, as well as help them attend virtual teachings on the local television stations for families who have access to a TV.

Teachers are also checking in with various female students of theirs to see how they are managing at home and dropping off necessary sanitary pads. But as the pandemic continues, students worldwide are more susceptible than ever to the largest generational setback in education the world has faced. So what can we do?


With physical distancing becoming increasingly challenging with large student bodies around the world, many teachers are taking the classroom outdoors as a way for students to not only receive a properly distanced education, but to connect with nature.

Connecting to heritage and feeding families in Indigenous communities

Young man snaring rabbits

Land-based education has helped youth in Birch Narrows Dene Nation go trapping and hunting as part of COVID-19 relief efforts.

Land-based education, especially for Indigenous children, is crucial in promoting healthy living, activating different learning styles, and facilitating the rebuilding of lost connections to culture and community. Our partner Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan has already shifted class work to the outdoors to maintain good physical distancing while also teaching children traditional ways of food gathering and processing - and getting physical activity in the process.

Similarly, our partner Biigtigong Nishnaabeg in northern Ontario is completing half days in the classroom - physically distanced - and conducting class in the outdoors in the afternoon to allow students to reconnect with the land and explore their territory.

During the pandemic, land-based education has been incredibly impactful and helped for recovery efforts in Birch Narrows Dene Nation. One youth in the community went out into the bush to go trapping game with his family for the first time thanks to receiving land-based education at school.

Boosting food security and reducing poverty around the world
Land-based education has been crucial for all of our partner countries, from urban and school gardening in Bolivia that supplement school meals with fresh produce, to traditional hunting and gathering techniques taught to Indigenous students in Canada, to students learning to garden in Ghana and Uganda so they can help their parents farm and earn an income. Local food systems help build capacity for the community and teach children and youth the importance of growing your own food and connecting with the land.

But with COVID-19, communities have relied more on land-based activities to boost family food security and provide income. In Bolivia, our partners have shifted from school-based to home based food support, which includes home gardening and helping parents market their produce locally. This has numerous benefits: children learn first hand how to grow their own food, their parents are able to provide them with food, and most crucially, they are able to earn an income and prevent their children from falling into exploitative child labour. This will help ensure that they return to school once restrictions are lifted.

Providing a safe space for girls outside of school walls
Some of our partners around the globe have also started to shift programming to the outdoors, including Uganda where peer safe spaces have started running physically distanced outdoor sessions so adolescent girls have a place to go to receive support.

Canadian Feed The Children will also be launching a new project in Ethiopia thanks to the Slaight Family Foundation which will help thousands of girls in the Amhara region finish their education. To achieve this, our partners are turning to new methods of program delivery to reach them in the face of COVID-19, including exploring non-school based community sensitization training around girls’ rights to end gender-based violence and increase their chances of finishing school.


It is crucial to continue supporting children to succeed in the world beyond this pandemic. Education remains critical, and is strongly tied to food security and better economic outcomes for life. This is why Alice and Grace still head out to their young students’ homes to make sure they can still learn. It’s why our First Nations partners have taken their schooling outside. It’s why in Bolivia, parents are working hard to grow food at home and earn money wherever they can to keep their children in school.

They cannot accomplish this alone - it will require partnership from local authorities, governments, organizations like Canadian Feed The Children and the support of everyday Canadians to ensure that this current generation of children and youth does not fall through the cracks. Supporting land-based education in the face of COVID-19 is one of many ways to keep children learning and provides many more benefits to families and communities. It’s how we can make sure that this young generation can thrive during this pandemic, and can be part of building a food-secure future for the generations to come.