Across the world 800 million children are still not fully back in school, UNICEF is warning, with many at risk of never returning to the classroom the longer closures go on. There are at least 90 countries where schools are either closed or offering a mix of remote and in-person learning.

The UN agency’s chief of education, Robert Jenkins, told reporters that the closures are part of “unimaginable” disruption to children’s education. “I didn’t imagine the scale of the closures when schools shut last year, and I didn’t imagine it going on for so long. In all our scenario planning for disruption, this possibility was never raised,” he says.

“At the peak of the pandemic 1.6 billion children were not in school and here we are, a year later, and 800 million are still suffering partially or fully disrupted education.

“There are a lot of lessons that need to be drawn, and one is the impact that prolonged school closures have on children.”

A new Covid-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker from UNICEF, the World Bank and Johns Hopkins University is monitoring closures across the world, analyzing where children are learning at home or at school.

Humanitarian organizations say the closures have contributed to a range of increasing abuses and degradation of children’s rights across the world, from increasing use of child labor to a rise in child marriages, often in communities were children already struggled to access education.

While it is too soon for large-scale evidence to emerge, across the world human rights groups are seeing children increasingly taking on work as school closures take their toll.

A Save the Children report out this week warns that in Lebanon children are being put into work by parents desperate for money. The charity fears many of the children will never return to school. Jennifer Moorehead, the charity’s Lebanon director, said: “We are already witnessing the tragic impact of this situation, with children working in supermarkets or in farms, and girls forced to get married.”

In Uganda, schools have been closed since March 2020, putting 15 million pupils out of education. Only certain classes with exams coming up have been allowed to return. The rest will return in a staggered way in the coming months, though thousands of girls will not, having become pregnant or been married off in the intervening period.

In the Gulu district in the north of the country, Ambrose is making bricks under the burning sun for pennies, rather than attending classes. His plight is part of a wider rise in children working in the region. “Making bricks is very hard,” says the 11-year-old, who suffers from an aching back and rashes across his body.

The children here still have fun, sometimes finding time to play hide-and-seek or perform tricks with skipping ropes, but Ambrose does not know if he will ever go back to school. His mother worries about the physical impact this is having on her children.

“Bricks bring problems. Physically, you feel pain in your arms,” she says. But she can’t see any other way for them to survive.

Girls have been particularly hard hit by the closure of schools across the world. In countries such as Afghanistan teenage girls already had a high dropout rate with about 2.2 million girls not in school before the pandemic. Now, groups supporting them fear that an increase in early marriage will leave even those who want to continue their education unable to do so.