Photo Tour — 168 Empty Desks, 168 Million Missing Students: UNICEF’s Traveling ‘Pandemic Classrooms’ Installation Shines a Light on the COVID Education Crisis

By Meghan Gallagher | May 28, 2021
On 2 March 2021, a view of UNICEF’s ‘Pandemic Classroom’ installation at United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States of America. To call attention to the education emergency wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to and raise awareness of the need for governments to keep schools open, UNICEF unveiled ‘Pandemic Classroom’ – a model classroom made up of 168 empty desks, each seat representing one million children living in countries where schools have been almost entirely closed since the onset of lockdowns. “With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans.” On the installation, Fore added, “Behind each empty chair hangs an empty backpack – a placeholder for a child’s deferred potential … We do not want shuttered doors and closed buildings to obscure the fact that our children’s futures are being put on indefinite pause.” School closures have devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing. The majority of schoolchildren worldwide rely on their schools as a place where they can interact with their peers, seek support, access health and immunization services and a nutritious meal. The longer schools remain closed, the longer children are cut off from these critical elements of childhood. According to new data released today by UNICEF, schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. As students return to their classrooms, they will need support to readjust and catch up on their learning. UNICEF urges governments to prioritise every student’s uniq

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At the one year anniversary of COVID-19, schools from 29 countries still sat shuttered.

Across the world, millions of students stayed home — with millions of desks sitting empty. In a sobering reminder of how many students’ educations were on hold, UNICEF unveiled the exhibit ‘Pandemic Classroom’ on the grounds of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on March 3 of this year — a model classroom of 168 empty desks­, each representing one million children living in countries where schools haven’t opened in a year.

The dire number grows dramatically to 920 million students when adding in students impacted by partial school closures.

UN officials said the installation was an urgent call to government leaders to “prioritize reopening schools and keep children learning.”

“The idea for the installation was born out of this education emergency, linking shocking new data with an impactful visual representation to highlight the need for urgent action,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Chief of Education.

Jenkins said placing the chairs at the UN headquarters — where world leaders gather to address global crises — was a “powerful reminder that children’s futures were being put on hold and that the most vulnerable were paying the heaviest price.”

In addition to receiving media attention, the New York City installation was visited by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the UK and US Ambassadors to the UN. It was then installed in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean and Africa. It then went on to Latin America, where schools were kept closed the most days.

Here are the voices, videos and installations UNICEF created to show the gravity of shuttered schools while asking governments to prioritize reopening schools:

New York City

The Pandemic Classroom was first installed at the United Nations in New York City. In the United States schools were partially closed for 192 days between March 2020 and February 2021, according to UNICEF’s Covid-19 and School Closures report.

Secretary-General of the UN António Guterres visited the installation at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. (UNICEF/Chris Farber/Getty Images)
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield toured the NYC installation, tweeting “Globally, we must prioritize reopening schools: this is an education emergency.” (@USAmbUN/Twitter)
The video went live in Times Square between March and April 2021, sharing UNICEF’s message with thousands. (@NicholasJamz / Twitter)


UNICEF’s report found that 14 countries worldwide remained largely closed throughout 2020. Of those countries, Panama kept schools closed for the most days, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh, and Bolivia.

(UNICEF / Schverdfinger)
(UNICEF / Schverdfinger)


Across the Atlantic, the pandemic classroom was constructed in Cameroon. Schools were fully closed for 77 days and partially closed for 40 days in Central and West Africa.

(UNICEF / Dejongh)
(UNICEF / Dejongh)

Côte d’Ivoire

The symbolic reminder of the COVID-19 education crisis was also brought to Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa.

(@UNICEF / Twitter)
(@UNICEF / Twitter)


More recently, a UNICEF video showed a joyful student at a refugee camp in Jordan on her way back to school in early May:

Lead Image: Chris Farber / UNICEF / Getty Images

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