Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, governments across the Pacific Islands have implemented school closures to curb transmission and protect the lives of children. These measures are consistent with lockdown measures used in numerous countries worldwide and reflect a strong government interest in protecting the lives of citizens. However, these measures do not provide economic assistance to families or adequate structures to consistently achieve online learning across the student body. Consequently, the move has simultaneously undermined progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 — universal access to primary and secondary education.
According to UNICEF, “schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health and hygiene services; mental health and psychosocial support; and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more.” The most vulnerable children are “the hardest hit by school closures.” The longer they are out of school, “the less likely they are to return.”
COVID-19 related economic issues have exacerbated this crisis as some families cannot afford the transportation, equipment and educational fees associated with education. Josephine Teakeni, President of Vois Blong Mere, claims that COVID-19 has meant families needed to “delay their children’s education while they find ways to get money to pay school fees,” to send them back in 2022. Some families risked “taking out loans from formal and informal financial institutions to pay for school fees or support income-generating initiatives” to do so.
Overall, the constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation highlights that strong government responses are both necessary and commendable. This is most evident in light of the introduction of new COVID-19 mutations like the Delta variant, which is both more infectious and more deadly and has led to a spike in cases worldwide. School closures are an appropriate tool when implemented in response to medical advice to protect the right to life. However, to protect children’s rights to education, these shutdowns should be accompanied by an appropriate framework for remote learning. To date, such a framework has not been successfully or consistently implemented.
Improving access to quality education has long been a high priority for the Pacific Islands due largely to their demographic makeup. The Pacific Islands is home to 11.9 million people, with more than half of the population under 23 years old. As education is interlinked with other SDGs like poverty alleviation, reduced gender inequality, and economic growth, the region’s future development rests on its youth’s access to schools. However, it also faces a myriad of challenges to improving access, such as geography, equity gaps and limited data to inform improvements. As a result of these challenges, the Pacific Islands was only making slow progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 4. Now, even these modest gains have been adversely affected by COVID-19.
Governments must increase access to education to improve development outcomes and promote human security in the Pacific Islands. First and foremost, this requires enhancing all students’ remote learning through innovative strategies that suit local contexts, such as lessons delivered via radio. Secondly, governments must formulate plans to safely reopen schools, such as providing masks and hygiene packs. Given the economic fallout of COVID-19, it is highly likely that international aid will be required to help finance these projects, at least in the short term. However, as a collection of small island states, their issues rarely receive international media attention and are subsequently afforded less interest. Ultimately, media training is essential for the Pacific Islands to have their education plight heard and supported by the international community.