Part 1 of this series is about the response of the world’s unprepared educational systems to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first in a three-part series about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education around the world. The second article is about the information security challenges for children in a remote learning model. The third article is about the impact on the mental development of children in primary education from being abruptly forced into remote learning.
The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus rocked the entire world. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic. This pandemic challenged economic systems, the health system of every government, and, last but not the least, every education systems in the world. Most educational institutes shifted to online learning platforms to keep the academic activities going.
EDUCATION CANNOT WAIT
Wars, human displacement, climate change-induced disasters, and other protracted crises have disrupted the education of 75 million children and youth globally. And this number is growing in an unprecedented way with the spread of COVID-19. Long-term mental health challenges in young people have been acknowledged and, for now, have not been overcome. (For details during the pandemic in the American context, read here about teen suicide and here for the mental health crisis among children and adolescents.)
The education of our young was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) showing 1.53 billion learners out of school and 184 country-wide school closures, impacting 87.6% of the world’s total enrolled learners. In 2020, children all over the world experienced severe disruptions to their education, as schools and families struggled with repeated closures, re-openings, and the transition to online schooling—when the technology is available and reliable (frequently not the case in developing countries). To see how the numbers have been changing over time, see the UNESCO site linked above.
EDUCATED DISRUPTED & RE-IMAGINED
We had to shift to a new mode of education. With the global wave of pandemic lockdowns, there was an unprecedented rise in e-learning. The biggest move to online education in history occurred when governments instructed students to resume their studies online. Thanks to digital-mode education, children started to re-imagine and continue with their syllabus on screen while learning outside the classroom. But then came a question: What about education for the millions who have already been deprived of their rights?
Students and teachers found themselves grappling with unfamiliar, confusing, and often unreliable conferencing technology. Many found the experiences very difficult to cope with, but for many living in lockdown, it was the only way that any level of education could continue.
However, for millions of children, the idea of an online virtual classroom remains an unattainable dream. Data shows that some 830 million students do not have access to a computer. The picture is particularly bleak in low-income countries. For example, nearly 90 per cent of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have household computers, while 82 percent of those with computers are hampered by technological obstacles (like inadequate bandwidth) when trying to get into their virtual classrooms.
The compounding effects of the coronavirus have been that, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, interruptions to education can have deep and long term consequences—especially for the disadvantaged. Except for highly motivated children, the risk of regressing is strong for children whose basic, foundational learning (reading, math, languages, etc.) was not strong to begin with. Worse, millions of children who have already been deprived of their right to education, particularly girls, are at even greater risks to health and well-being (psychosocial and physical) during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education”, Audrey Azoulay, the head of UNESCO warned in March of 2020.
Sutil, who lives in a remote village in West Kalimantan, Indonesia (the world’s 4th most populous country), has found educating his child during COVID-19 to be a monumental challenge. As a farmer with a lack of electricity and no access to the internet or television, Sutil has found it difficult to help his child with lessons. Once a week, a teacher goes to a child’s home to help with learning. However, on many occasions, the teacher has difficulty finding the children because they are out with their parents in the rice fields.
“My child is no longer learning. She is only waiting for the reopening to continue with her studies,” said a mother of a 9-year-old girl in eastern Congo. A mother of two children in North Kivu, Congo, said, “It does not make me happy that my children are no longer going to school. Years don’t wait for them. They have already lost a lot. What will become of our uneducated children?” Lusenge K., 16, also from Congo, said in 2020 she had no education after the school closed and was worried that she would not enter her final school year: “Lockdown is not good for me,” she said.
In India, the closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 have impacted 247 million children in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, there are over 6 million girls and boys who were already out of school even before the COVID-19 crisis.
In India, only 25% of children have access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Pre-COVID-19, only 24% of Indian households India had access to the internet, and the digital divide is very large between rural and urban areas and between genders.
ADDING UP THE COSTS
As the world becomes more interconnected, so do risks to humanity that were mostly unanticipated. (Virologists and past presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama called for preparations for pandemics, and the 2011 movie Contagion foresaw with remarkable accuracy how a pandemic would quickly spread around the world.) The COVID-19 pandemic (by definition) has not stopped at national borders. It has infected people regardless of nationality, level of education, income, or gender. But the same has not been true for the consequences of illness, which have hit the most disadvantaged classes of people the hardest.
A sobering study suggests that the loss of education during World War II continued to harm the former students’ lives for years after the war. In war zones, the country’s schools were damaged by munitions of all sizes, while many other schools were requisitioned by the government. Consequently, children were packed into large classes, and stationery and books were often in short supply.
MAKE A BETTER WORLD
Countries can build on the lessons of the pandemic:
- The digital divides must be closed.
- We need to invest aggressively in teachers’ professional development and to use technology to enhance their work.
- Parents play a critical role in their children’s education and need to be supported in that role.
- Resilient systems require better conditions at home, devices, connectivity, and books.
In 2020 and early 2021, the conventional belief was that children in communities where the overall rates of infection were low, transmission through schools likely would not happen. However, the Delta and Omicron variants obliterated this comforting belief. More than ever during this pandemic, our schools, governments, non-profits, religious institutions, and the private sector must work together to make the decisions that keep our children safe.
We can think beyond our political interests, our economic interests, and even our individual fears and opinions. A staggered re-opening of schools is wise, starting with as low as 25% of children coming to school on a given day. Even starting with even just one in-person meeting per week will make a huge difference in our children’s engagement with education. Most children need at least some in-person learning to maintain sufficient motivation and the more, the better.
Here is one closing idea. Fixing the system for our children is a monumental task, but imagine if we shift the “for” to “with.” Imagine if all of us together ask and answer this question: What’s the greatest role I can play? Imagine the force that we’ll be: a movement, working tirelessly for new and better education systems, systems that unleash the greatest potential of every child.
A WORD FROM PRESENCE
Our recovery will take time, but it will allow us to build bridges between past practices and new educational visions. Let us proactively pivot toward learning that ignites curiosity. If we want our students to be proactive learners, critical thinkers, informed consumers, real-world connectors, and innovative creators, we should seek out learning opportunities that are tailored to meet their needs. Our children are the world’s future, and we should invest our best in them.
#JOIN THE MOVEMENT