As COVID-19 deaths worldwide pass the 200,000 mark, the global community is rightly focused on channeling its resources and efforts into strengthening healthcare systems and developing medical treatments. A pandemic of this scale and severity, however, brings numerous critical consequences beyond immediate medical needs, thereby warranting unparalleled global attention. One of these consequences is the 1.57 billion learners currently out of school. According to UNESCO, as of 26 April 2020, 189 countries have enforced country-wide school closures, affecting 87.9% of the total student population across the globe. At the peak of the education crisis, 195 countries had implemented country-wide closures, affecting 91.4% of students worldwide. This report will cover the existing and ongoing global response efforts to the educational circumstances, and highlight key reasons for governments, international development actors, philanthropists and members of the public to amplify their efforts to monitor, support and strengthen education systems in these unprecedented times.
A report by the Centre for Global Development finds that health is still the “overwhelming priority” for donors, with education not consistently featuring as a component in funders’ COVID-19 response programs. Rather, it is UN bodies and global organisations that are driving the funding and action for educational needs. Last month, UNESCO launched its Global Education Coalition to stimulate collective efforts and resources of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders towards addressing the educational emergency. UNESCO has also published a directory of distance learning solutions, including learning management systems suited to different modes of connectivity. UNICEF has released guidance for teachers, parents and caregivers on how to talk to children about COVID-19. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has raised US$8.8 million to support UNICEF’s education focused COVID-19 response programs.
GPE has also put US$250 million towards education in developing countries, whose children are at the greatest risk of losing out both now, and in the future. GPE Board Chair, Julia Gillard, emphasized that “[u]nless we act now to support education systems, millions of vulnerable children, especially the poorest girls, many not be able to resume learning when this crisis is over.” The Education Cannot Wait Global Fund has mobilized US$23 million for emergency grants to enable rapid delivery of holistic education services for vulnerable children and youth in 16 countries. Priorities of these emergency grants include ensuring learning continuity, facilitating distance learning, and promoting health and protection-related learning, including awareness of COVID and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services. Currently, 630 million children are out of school in developing countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Whilst the aforementioned efforts are commendable, the complexity of the problem demands sustained focus and energy on addressing students’ educational needs. Just as the virus itself will hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities the worst if urgent action is not taken, so will the poorest and most vulnerable children suffer the most from school closures if key players do not step up. Three key areas of concern emerge as important focal points for educational relief efforts: availability of and access to resources to facilitate home-based or distance learning; the risks and dangers of physical absence from school; and the strains and pressures on teachers and parents.
The stark switch from classroom learning to remote learning poses many challenges to learning. Students will suffer from social and emotional isolation, not being able to meet with friends or engage with a community on a regular basis. The switch to home-based learning also increases the likelihood of students dropping out of school entirely. UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, has expressed concern regarding the “hundreds of millions of children [who] will have to spend weeks and months away from their classrooms,” as it is “know[n] from experience that the longer vulnerable children stay away from school, the less likely they are to return.” Fore therefore stresses that it is “critical to give them alternative ways to learn and rebuild a routine.” Alternative learning methods and routines in circumstances like these inevitably involve utilizing technological solutions, such as online platforms and communication tools. Though these may be effective and successful solutions for schools and students who have the means and bandwidth to use them, those from less privileged and less technologically connected communities are unable to reap the benefits as seamlessly. It is imperative that funding is deployed to bridge this digital divide, to ensure that no student is left behind.
Learning aside, physical absence from schools can have dire implications for children and youth, particularly those living in less economically developed regions, or in conflict affected areas. Millions of children worldwide rely on school food programs and meal plans for their daily sustenance. The World Food Programme reports that school closures amidst COVID-19 have left 369 million children without their regular school meals. It is still uncertain as to when schools may begin to re-open, and there is no “one-size-fits-all approach” to re-opening, the Centre of Global Development has suggested. This renders issues of child hunger and malnutrition an even greater imperative for community development and aid organisations, in order to address immediate, essential needs. Both national and international funding for educational needs should thus integrate assistance for such key school services upon which students rely for their physical well-being.
Absence from school also increases the risk of violence and exploitation, particularly for girls. Evaluation of similar circumstances of children not being in schools has shown that the number of early marriages, teen pregnancies, and instances of sexual exploitation increase, and the rate of recruitment into militias and child labour also rises. A United Nations Population Fund study of Sierra Leone amidst the Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016 revealed that 11,000 of the 14,000 teenage girls who got pregnant in those two years were attending school prior to the virus outbreak. Knowledge of these patterns must stimulate action towards greater accountability between teachers, students and parents during this period of school closures. Financial support can be strategically channeled to enable connectivity within and among the school community, so that students are kept present and active, though apart. Local and national governments also have their role to play by implementing and enforcing physical distancing policies within their respective jurisdictions, to prevent further unnecessary interactions. Educational organisations and not-for-profits may also consider directing efforts towards economic empowerment of low-income families, to relieve financial pressures of their children’s schooling amidst the mounting social and economic burdens in the wake of COVID-19.
The situation of low-income families more broadly points to the increased pressures and stresses of parents and teachers in this period of school closures. Whilst managing their children at home, parents are simultaneously running the entire household under changed circumstances, including their own work, whether essential or remote. Parents’ roles with regards to their child’s learning and education are suddenly heightened, and parents will respond differently to these new responsibilities. Likewise, teachers are having to adapt and innovate their approaches to teaching and engaging with students. Again, technology may pose a barrier to connectivity for students who live in more remote areas, or who do not have the means to maintain communications through digital devices. In such contexts, national communication channels such as television and radio networks become key sources of education. Conversation and exchange between national governments and their educational institutes are thus crucial in developing effective solutions to securing the continuity of learning for all students.
Life is in limbo for all across the world. The consequences of this uncertainty for students will be particularly severe if not addressed quickly and strategically on an international scale. This overview has not even touched on the implications for students with learning disabilities, or students in refugee communities. The state of education amidst this global pandemic, however, still presents a tentative silver-lining. A report issued jointly by the UNICEF, WHO and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in March 2020 suggests, that if maintaining safe school operations and reopening schools after closures is “done well,” the process in its entirety “can promote public health.” Now is the time for families, schools, governments, international organisations and philanthropies to step up to give our students the best chance of emerging from this period healthier, stronger, and brighter than ever before.