Empty desk array at UN spotlights lost learning in pandemic

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — While world leaders converge on the U.N. headquarters next week, the coronavirus will be on the agenda — and a set of empty, backpack-draped chairs and desks will symbolize what the pandemic has done to education.

In front of the desks, a blackboard-like display will count the number of in-person class hours lost during the pandemic: over 1.8 trillion and growing, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s arm. It arranged the installation, unveiled Friday, on the headquarters grounds to urge leaders to prioritize reopening schools.

“Next week, the United Nations will open its doors to delegations from around the world. But in many countries, the doors of schools will remain closed to children and young people,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “We are short-changing an entire generation.”

UNICEF says about 131 million children have missed out on three-quarters of their in-person instruction since March 2020, and nearly 77 million of them have missed almost all of it.

Schools are still fully or partially closed in about 27% of countries, according to the agency.