School Education in the Era of Covid-19
Jogging past a school in my New York City neighbourhood, I couldn’t help but reminisce about how full of life the playgrounds had been a few weeks ago. Regrettably, educational systems have not been spared from the effects of the COVID-19 virus as schools around the globe are being temporarily closed.
According to data from UNESCO, 188 countries have implemented county-wide school closures affecting 1.54 billion children and youth enrolled in school or university. Although it might seem that every student is equally impacted by extended school closures, the impact will be felt disproportionately by some; take, for instance, school feeding programmes. Over 360 million children globally are currently missing out on school meals due to school closures. For lower-income children, closures makes them susceptible to food deficiencies as school is often one of the only places where these children are sure to eat a hot meal.
In the United States of America, about 30 million school children depend on school meals. This number is composed of more than 20 million children who receive free lunch and 10 million children who receive free breakfasts at schools. In recognition of this fact, some state governments have put in place systems to ensure that parents and guardians can still show up at designated areas to pick up meals for themselves and their families. For example, the New York City Department of Education launched more than 400 meal hubs across the city where New Yorkers can get three free meals. Unfortunately, this isn’t the global norm. According to the UN Food Programme (WFP), more than 12 million students no longer receive WFP school meals due to school closures and most of these students are in developing countries. For many poor families in these countries, the value of a meal in school is substantial, especially for families with several children in school. This can result in considerable savings for the family and support the child’s learning outcomes.
Nonetheless, school closure doesn’t have to amount to suspension of learning and many educators are expected to continue delivering education virtually, showing significant resilience in the face of a global pandemic. In France for instance, public television and radio stations are now broadcasting lessons for school children, designed by teachers from the French Ministry of Education. In Kenya, there have been reports of students mobilizing online to hold study sessions via Zoom. That said, the primary challenge with e-learning is broadband availability (for greater exploration of this issue see our most recent blog post from Panchalee Tamulee). Across the world, this is strongly correlated with income and geography. According to ITU's new Measuring Digital Development series, 13 per cent of households in developed countries do not have internet access at home. A household study by the Pew Research Center conducted in America found that low-income families tend to be more smartphone-dependent and lack access to multiple internet-enabled devices. In such cases, the child might recourse to accessing learning materials through a parent’s phone, but this isn’t always simple as the parent might have other competing demands or more than one child of school age.
Developing countries are also experiencing their fair share of the challenge as 53.3 per cent of households in these countries do not have internet access at home. In sub-Saharan Africa, although the number of internet users on the continent has grown exponentially in the last decade, an estimated 71 per cent of the total population is still not online. While ingenious solutions continue to spring up, many of these solutions depend on electricity, internet connectivity or both, which aren’t universally available – in reality over 600 million people within the region are without electricity. This impediment is further exacerbated by other infrastructural differences that exist between rural and urban areas and the wide educational attainment gap between parents across the divide.
It is also important to note the gendered effects of countrywide school closures. From previous pandemics that have led to school closures in the region – for example, the Ebola crisis – adolescent girls are at a high risk of being the most disproportionately affected. Of the 743 million girls currently out of school due to the pandemic, about 111 million are living in the world’s least developed countries.
Considering that in many cultures, women and girls are primary caregivers, in instances of pandemic there are often increased expectations placed on them to care for the elderly and the sick. This increased responsibility will limit girls’ ability to catch up on schoolwork or study independently. A study conducted by Plan International in Liberia and Sierra Leone after the Ebola outbreak found that the closure of schools also increased girls’ vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse. In Sierra Leone, adolescent pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities during the crisis. Post-outbreak, the number of girls that returned to the classroom dipped. This can also be attributed to the recently rescinded policy preventing pregnant girls from attending school. For some, there is the issue of parents not being able to support their children in their schoolwork due to limited education, while for others the parents simply could not afford school fees post-crisis. Time has shown that in situations such as these, the girl child is encouraged to drop out and, in some cases, married off.
In conclusion, there is already a significant achievement gap between poor students and their wealthier peers and between male and female students. During these lengthy school closures it is likely that the gap will be widened, further disadvantaging the already disadvantaged. It is then in our long-term interest that concerned parties begin to engage, find sustainable solutions and ensure that the already worse-off are protected from further harm.
Many thanks to our contributor, Esomchi Agalamanyi, Consultant to the UN Financing for Development Office. Esomchi can be contacted via his member profile page.