The number of students and youth across the planet that are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Source: UNESCO). School closures have affected 94% of students worldwide, a figure that rises to 99% in low- and middle-income countries. Learners face critical disruption to their education, especially those living in vulnerable conditions. In the long run, the educational emergency might undermine countries’ progress by eroding human capital and widening inequalities. This year’s theme for the International Day of Education, which took place on the 24th of January, calls for strategies to recover and revitalize education for the COVID-19 generation. What can be done to mitigate the negative impacts of the educational crisis derived from the heath crisis?
The impact of the pandemic on education
The COVID-19 crisis is unveiling and, at the same time, exacerbating pre-existing educational disparities by hindering access to education for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults (especially for those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, people with disabilities, and forcibly displaced persons). According to UNESCO figures, worldwide, students lost on average two-thirds of an academic year due to pandemic-related school closures. Appropriate education is closely linked to improved health, job creation, and overall, future prosperity. Therefore, interrupting learning deprives students of accessing the opportunities needed for growth and development. Moreover, schools are a safety net for students; many rely on food provided at schools for healthy nutrition and essential services such as social and psychological support or the Internet. The wellbeing of an entire generation of children and youth is at stake. For Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK, COVID-19 is mutating into a global education emergency.
Even before the pandemic, education faced significant challenges. Two hundred fifty-eight million children were already out of school, representing one-sixth of the entire school-age population. In addition, accessing school education is no guarantee of actual learning. The World Bank’s report on learning poverty states that, by the age of 10, 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple text. Poor quality education is partially the result of a vast funding gap for schooling. In fact, only 1 in 5 countries showcased a strong commitment to equity in education through their financing mechanisms. In this scenario, the COVID-19 crisis is widening the education gap and uncovering pre-existent inequality.
COVID-19 is deepening the digital and educational gap
After the impossibility of continuing face-to-face education, governments focused efforts on implementing distance learning strategies, supported by the Internet and other technologies —such as TV and radio. They sought to rethink education by taking advantage of technology. Nevertheless, underprivileged learners face greater constraints to continue their education; many do not have access to the technologies needed for home-based learning. UNICEF’s figures show that more than 90% of the countries adopted digital or broadcast distance learning policies that potentially reached only 69% of learners. Moreover, 3 out of 4 students cannot benefit from remote learning policies because they live in rural areas or belong to the poorest households. As a result, many schoolchildren are at risk of falling behind or never returning to school. A Save the Children’s survey conducted in India displayed that two-thirds of learners stopped all educational activity during the lockdown.
Online platforms became the most used means for governments to guarantee access to education, with around 83% of countries exclusively implementing online platforms related strategies. Yet, as many of 465 million children and youth do not have access to the Internet at home. In regions such as Sub-saharan Africa, the situation is particularly alarming; the share of learners with no computer at home is as high as 89%, and only 18% have household internet. Compared to the global average of 50% of students having computers at home and 57% having access to the Internet, there is no doubt that international collective action is urgently needed to tackle social capital’s erosion. Only nine years away from meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring equitable and quality education seems further away than ever.
What can be done?
While schools of 31 nations remain fully closed and others have implemented hybrid learning models (on-site classes combined with online ones), one thing is evident: digital access is no longer a luxury for students; it has become a crucial element for their social insertion. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, argues that countries must prioritize education in the recovery by protecting education budgets and devoting it to catch-up and remedial programs. Upfront investment can reduce by 75% the costs of repairing the damages caused by the pandemic. Also, countries must ensure support for teachers, skills development, and connectivity for all.
The latest Save the Children’s report, “Save our Education,” stresses that a global education action plan must be inclusive and gender-responsive in order to ensure that no learner is left behind. A three-part agenda for recovery is proposed:
- During lockdowns, governments should keep learning alive by implementing remote-learning initiatives.
- Learning assessment after learners return to schools should be a priority to identify those in need of support.
- Increased international financing and cooperation are critical to support the world’s poorest countries.
Furthermore, the report critically discusses how the education emergency has been less visible to policymakers, even though the long-term consequences threaten progress.
Private actors are also contributing to close the education gap and are using technology for this aim. SolarHome, for instance, is an Asian startup seeking to address one of the underlying causes of the lack of access to the Internet: the lack of access to electricity. They make solar energy affordable to households living outside the electric grid by offering “rent-to-own” energy service subscription plans. For NooS, quality education is critical to tackling the most pressing challenges of society and the planet. Thus, we partner with impact organizations that enable vulnerable people to get additional access to learning (reading, writing, coding, etc.). Meeting SDG 4 —ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education and promoting life-long learning— requires collective action at all spheres and impactful initiatives that accelerate the process. COVID-19 is a wake-up call to rethink education and take on the responsibility to protect this precious human right and common good.