COVID-19 and Education: What is happening to students in vulnerable circumstances?
By Natalie Emery (MIDP ’19)
Approximately 91% of the world’s student population has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis according to UNESCO, causing a severe and unprecedented impact on an estimated 1.6 billion children and youth left at home. With most schools and educational institutions in global lock-down, governments have turned to a variety of alternative education solutions, from online learning to broadcasting classes. This situation has however put a spotlight on the existing, substantial disparities in societies, where those with fewer resources are now disproportionately disadvantaged and the learning gap between the rich and poor is exacerbated.
MAIN REPERCUSSIONS OF SCHOOL CLOSURES
Schools are closed and governments have had to shift to new, mostly technology-driven solutions to continue or start the scholastic year, depending on which hemisphere we are in.
The majority of solutions being provided include online options such as national education platforms and Learning Management System (LMS), broadcasting televised or radio classes, national call centers for support, and WhatsApp/SMS communications. However, Jaimee Saavedra, the Global Director In Education of The World Bank, highlights that as schooling is interrupted and new methods are used for learning, students will struggle to maintain the same levels of productivity and meet normal deadlines. Even more so, for children and youth living in already difficult circumstances, these solutions are not an option and can lead to negative, unintended consequences, leaving them further behind and even excluded from learning.
Some of the additional, alarming challenges students in vulnerable circumstances face include:
- A lack of resources to learn, from no connectivity or devices, unsuitable learning environments and a disparity in parents or caregivers ability to help kids learn, many of whom have not gone to school and are unable to teach certain subjects. Oftentimes, they also have less time to teach.
- A spike in food insecurity, as more than 300 million children globally rely on schools to provide the main meal of the day. Children in both high- and low-income countries are affected. In New York City, there are 114,085 school children who are dependent on school meals. In India, 100 million.
- For adolescent girls in extremely impoverished situations, these school closures might mean never returning to schools, increased unpaid labour, gender-based violence and even early marriage.
In general, those living in the world’s least developed countries, where getting an education is already a challenge, will be worst affected. Many children might not return to school after the crisis is averted.
For adolescent girls in extremely impoverished situations, these school closures might mean never returning to schools, increased unpaid labour, gender-based violence and even early marriage
INCREASE EQUITY AND INCLUSIVENESS
Experts from UNESCO draw on their experience in the Ebola crisis response to guide education in emergencies activities, keeping at the forefront children most at risk, including girls, children in very poor situations or in abusive or harmful environments:
- Although technology can be a fantastic resource in education, every country needs to provide alternative, low-tech or no-tech approaches where digital solutions are unavailable.
- Countries should try not to replicate. There are an infinite number of excellent online education programs and the sole reason for creating a new one should be if existing ones cannot be tailor-made to local needs.
- Programs must be gender-responsive, including self-paced and flexible as girls tend to carry additional burdens at home.
- Teachers must engage with parents and caregivers, as this is the first time that most are faced with the full responsibility of teaching their kids. Strong support should be provided to both teachers and parents ensure that children have an enabling environment.
The World Bank has recently highlighted the substantial efforts countries have been taking to continue learning. In addition to the main remote learning solutions which combine online and broadcasting, here are a few other examples of creative and inclusive approaches:
- Colombia is creating a kit to learn from home by grade for those without access to technology. Other countries, like Costa Rica, are also working on providing hard copy resources.
- In the USA, some schools are bringing internet connectivity to low-income areas through beaming free WiFi from school buses while the Dominican Republic has created free WiFi access points where students can download data.
- Telecommunication giants have started providing zero-rated internet access to educational websites and portals, in various capacities in South Africa, Croatia, Jordan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Liberia.
- Governments in Russia and Paraguay have created partnerships with the private sector to provide free online educational packages.
- The Kyrgyz Republic is providing free SIM cards to students and teachers with expedited registration procedures and special data plans.
- Peru, Egypt and the USA are providing phones and devices to teachers and learners for home use.
BUILD BACK BETTER
Can this forced pause in education as we know it cause policy-makers to re-evaluate current methodologies and structures and perhaps aim for systemic changes in how and what we learn? And in doing so, ensure that all members of society are taken into consideration?
On the short-term, governments must meet the needs of low-income and vulnerable families through providing alternative solutions in no- or low-tech situations and increasing assistance to enable each student to access education.
On the long term, we need to start asking the right questions. This is an opportunity for the global education community to analyse and critically evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Considering the number of high school and university graduates unemployed and lacking the skills demanded by the labour market, this pandemic can be an opportunity to explore how the current education system could adapt to better prepare the next generation to become purposeful participants of society.
Natalie Emery is a strategic specialist with over twelve years’ work experience designing and implementing international development programs in low-income countries. Following an evidence-based, pragmatic approach, she specializes in delivering solid project management and creating partnerships that increase knowledge sharing, resource mobilization and sustainable interventions.
Passionate about using technology for improved educational and TVET outcomes as well as income-generating activities, Ms. Emery is the co-founder of Code for Change (www.code4change.co.za), an innovative non-profit organization that creates and provides on- & offline coding tools, curriculum, and training for youth and girls in under-resourced environments.
Ms. Emery holds a Master’s in International Development Policy from Duke University, a Degree in Human Resource Management from the University of South Africa, and a Project Management Certificate.