COVID-19 threatens to reverse education gains
Reimagining better schools for the future
School closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted learning, affecting around 325 million children in East Asia and Pacific, and putting gains made in education at risk. The poorest and the most marginalised who rely on social protection services provided by schools, such as school feeding have also been placed in jeopardy.
UNICEF is supporting Ministries of Education across the region to ensure the continuation of learning through remote and alternative approaches with some countries offering online learning while others broadcasting lessons on television and radio reaching students who don’t have access to the internet.
Putting distance learning in place is not an easy task and has rarely been done at scale required by the COVID-19 pandemic. High poverty rates in some countries means that access to media is patchy. Most families have a mobile phone, but some may not have a television or radio. And internet may only be for a privileged few in urban areas. The crisis has brought to light the tremendous digital divide between those who have internet and those who don’t.
The challenges will not go away once schools reopen, in fact in many ways they may increase. We will have lost recent gains in learning, some children will remain excluded and some may never return.
The pandemic has made those working in education stop and think differently. We have had to introduce alternative ways of learning, which neither students, nor teachers have ever experienced. We now have an opportunity to reimagine and come out of this crisis with improved learning and schools that are more inclusive and resilient to face future crises.
Reopening schools – better and safer
In deciding to reopen, governments are considering difficult trade-offs between public health and adverse economic and social impacts of school closures. UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Bank has issued a new Framework on the safe reopening of schools, that offers practical advice for national and local authorities on when to consider reopening and how to prepare schools to receive and keep children safe when they return.
Schools must also look at how they can reopen better – with improved learning and more comprehensive support for children at school including health, nutrition, psychosocial support and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. This must be balanced with the best interests of children in mind and overall public health considerations.
Schools must have conditions that reduce disease transmission, safeguard essential services and supplies and promote healthy behaviour. This includes access to soap and clean water for safe handwashing, procedures on when staff or students feel unwell, protocols on social distancing and good hygiene practices.
In Mongolia, UNICEF provided support to the Government to develop safe school protocols for the reopening. In Viet Nam, an estimated 6.4 million students are returning to a school that doesn’t have running water. As an immediate response to ensure a safe return to school, UNICEF and a range of partners will continue to distribute essential supplies such as soap, hand sanitizer and ceramic filters to reach at least 300,000 students across the country. In Papua New Guinea, UNICEF constructed handwashing points and disseminated messages on effective handwashing and personal hygiene in 120 schools.
Closing learning gaps and promoting wellbeing and protection
There should be a focus on practices that compensate for lost instructional time, strengthen pedagogy and build on hybrid learning models such as integrating approaches in remote and distance education.
In Timor-Leste, to reach all children, the Government with UNICEF support developed learning opportunities across all of Timor’s communication channels: television, radio, internet, mobile phones and print to ensure all children continue to learn. In Cambodia, UNICEF is planning to support accelerated and remedial learning after schools reopen. In the Philippines, UNICEF has launched with the government an alternative learning platform to reach the most disadvantaged children and youth who are not part of the formal education system. It has already reached at least 11,000 users.
Returning to school better means also expanding focus on students’ well-being and reinforcing the protection of children through enhanced referral mechanisms and the provision of essential school-based services including healthcare and school feeding. In China, as part of Back to School preparations, UNICEF surveyed children and parents to understand their feelings, needs, and readiness to go back into what is surely going to be new learning environment. The results were used to create a communication campaign to address the psychosocial concerns and help students get ready for school. A similar survey is being carried out in Lao PDR and will be used to help children ease back into school.
Reaching the most marginalised
To ensure inclusion of all children, UNICEF supports governments to adapt school opening policies and practices to expand access to marginalised groups - previously out-of-school children, displaced and migrant children and minorities. UNICEF is also making critical communications and outreach available in relevant languages and accessible formats. In Viet Nam, UNICEF is making educational resources available in minority languages and sign language. It is also supporting home visits to children with disabilities to ensure they continue learning. In Indonesia UNICEF is supporting the development of offline learning materials and broadcasting programmes to facilitate home-based learning among disadvantaged children who are not benefiting from online learning opportunities provided by the government and the private sector.
While COVID-19 has challenged education systems and threatened to reverse the hard-earned gains in learning across the region, it has also challenged us to reimagine and to innovate. We have tried the uncomfortable, the unimaginable and we have done it speedily. The pandemic may just be a catalyst for creating more equitable, gender sensitive and inclusive education system for all children. In the coming weeks, reopening schools – when it is safe to do so – must be a priority otherwise we will see a devastating impact on children who are falling behind.