In Georgia, COVID-19 threatens to widen the education gap
The temporary closure of schools and patchy internet access in parts of the country are exacerbating education inequalities.
NIKOZI, Georgia – Mate’s face is beaming as he shows off his climbing trophies. “I’m really good at it. Sometimes even better than my brother. Look how many prizes I’ve won,” he says, gesturing towards the collection of shiny awards in a corner of his home in the village of Nikozi.
Mate and his older brother Giorgi cleaned up in the local climbing competitions held in Nikozi, just a short walk from the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia. But nationwide restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have thwarted their hopes of taking on their peers from across Georgia.
“The boys had a competition coming up in Tbilisi – the national championships,” says their mother, Pelagia. “They were training very hard. But, of course, the event was cancelled.”
As disappointed as Pelagia is for her sons, she’s more worried about what the disruption will mean for her six children’s education. With schools closed, Pelagia’s children have had to study, play and in some cases train every day within the confines of their home and yard.
“It has been pretty difficult,” she says.
“We’re really struggling”
The first patient with COVID-19 was diagnosed in Georgia in February 2020, prompting the Government to introduce a range of measures including school closures, with schools across the country switching to remote learning from late March. The sudden shift left teachers and students struggling to adjust, especially those living in rural areas with limited internet and cell phone service.
“We don’t have wired internet or even a computer. So, I buy data for my cell phone so that we can be connected,” Pelagia says. “I buy the cheapest package – it’s 20 tetri a day (US$0.06), but it still adds up.”
“We’re really struggling,” she adds.
Pelagia says that four of her children have to share a cell phone to participate in online lessons, and that lessons sometimes overlap with one another. Plus, the family’s mobile internet plan doesn’t give the children access to all the online tools they need to keep up.
Such inequalities have become an all-too-familiar story as almost 1.2 billion students around the world have found themselves out of school due to school closures resulting from the coronavirus, deepening the digital education divide.
“It’s critical that a range of learning tools and increased internet access are provided for every school and every child,” says Ghassan Khalil, UNICEF Representative in Georgia.
Even before the pandemic, disparities in school attendance in Georgia reflected differing household incomes, with more rural areas like Shida Kartli Region, where Nikozi is located, having some of the lowest participation and completion rates: Just 68 per cent of students in the area complete upper secondary education, compared with around 90 per cent in the capital, Tbilisi.
Even when children in rural areas are in school, household income inequalities are often reflected in students’ academic performance. A 2019 UNICEF-supported study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that, overall, students in urban areas outperform those living in rural ones. As financial pressures mount for many families during the COVID-19 pandemic, these disparities are likely to get worse.
Despite the challenges, Pelagia is doing her best to make sure her children don’t fall behind during the pandemic, including her seven-year-old daughter Martha.
“After I do homework, my mother checks it. Then, she takes a screenshot of it and sends it to the teacher,” Martha says. “Before, I was really good at school. Now, I’m not so sure.”
UNICEF has been delivering assistance packages containing food and hygiene items to some of Georgia’s most vulnerable families, including in Nikozi, and is working with partners to provide online sessions for adolescents on psychosocial and emotional stability and stress management during the pandemic.