Back to School during the COVID-19 pandemic in the MENA Region
What are the best practices? How to build back better?
Mariam is a 13-year-old Syrian who has been dreaming of going back to school, but since this is another school year in a global pandemic, Mariam and her entire generation is affected by compounding and unprecedented challenges, with potential impact going beyond the short- and medium-term and beyond the education sector.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated of 14 million children across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region between the ages of 5-14 were out of school and nearly two-thirds of ten year old children in the region were unable to read with proficiency.
The already present learning crisis and long-standing educational challenges have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 at least 110 million children were affected by widespread school closures and lockdowns. Despite all efforts, almost 40 per cent, 37 million children in MENA, were not reached with broadcast and remote learning – the majority of whom were already vulnerable and disadvantaged.
It is crucial, now more than ever, to not only safely reopen schools for continued teaching and learning but to also go beyond ‘business as usual’ towards building back better. Schools, teachers and students need tailored support and relevant tools and guidance to enable a safe return to in-person schooling. While preparing safe school operations, strict health protocols and supply of necessary infection prevention and control materials should be in place to ensure the health and wellbeing of all.
Adding to these health measures, access to remote learning, including remote learning platforms and relevant resources (stable internet connection, computers, tablets, smartphones and televisions) is urgently needed to prevent a further increase of learning inequities during times of remote learning. No child should be left behind.
A well-coordinated global effort is required to support teachers and students during this challenging time. Teachers should be celebrated for their critical role and great influence on children’s learning and well-being and including their families and communities.
In this context, to ensure children’s safe return to school, it is important to prioritize teachers and school communities for vaccination as part of back to school readiness plans and programs. This requires strengthening support to teachers and investing in teachers’ and students’ psychological support and wellbeing and socio-emotional learning to enable them to better deal with the multiple challenges related to the pandemic and to support children to catch up on lost learning.
“COVID -19 is a challenge, but it also presented an opportunity to evolve in the way education is delivered. Several countries are now prioritizing students, teachers and education staffs’ health at all stages, including within national vaccination campaigns to ensure wide scale immunization and fast reopening of schools and learning institutes.”
More than ever, as a result of the pandemic, parents and caregivers are vital agents in their children’s learning. A safe, protective, and stimulating home environment is now recognized as a crucial component in learning, at a time when many parents have not had enough time and/or capacity to fulfil this role effectively.
“Parents and caregivers have to dedicate more time to interact, listen, and support their children, and try to establish a safe and friendly learning environment for them to engage in remote learning.” says Abdulwahab. “It is also important to reassure children that this situation is temporary and by doing so, we will overcome the pandemic together and return to school and normal life to meet our friends and peers,” he adds.
“The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education has been a massive shock – for children, teachers, parents and education systems overall. Nevertheless, the crisis has also provided a valuable opportunity to ‘Build Back Better’ towards more flexible, inclusive, and resilient hybrid education systems with students and teachers at the centre. Equipping students with skills to mitigate anxiety and stress and enabling teachers to support their students on their learning journey is the goal. Every girl and boy in MENA in school safely learning.”
This is an urgent Call for Action to all children, parents, communities, leaders, teachers, school principals, ministers of education and politicians across the MENA region, to ensure that:
- ALL children and youth are back in school and learning and receive the tailored services needed to meet their learning, health and psychosocial wellbeing needs
- ALL children receive support to catch up on lost learning through large-scale remedial learning, adequate learning assessment tools and digital transformation
- ALL teachers are prepared and supported to address learning losses among their students and to incorporate digital technology into their teaching.
“The COVID-19 crisis has shown us the importance of life skills / 21st century skills – to navigate anxiety and foster resilience and empathy among children, to develop critical thinking skills in the context of the ‘info-demic’ and fake news, and to build the self-learning and communication skills of children during times of remote learning. Education systems have to diversify through multiple pathways of learning, tailored to the different needs of children and young people – including engaging with opportunities provided through education technology”, Brenda adds.
With risk mitigation measures and safety guidelines in place school can be a safe, positive, and enabling environment for Mariam and all children in which to learn, grow, play, and make new friends during this new ‘normal’ period. Let us embrace the opportunity to ‘build back better’ towards more open, inclusive, flexible and resilient education systems across the MENA region.
Yasmine Oubahi is a Social Media Officer in the Education Section at UNICEF MENARO
 UNESCO-UIS Database (2021): Out-of-school rate for children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age, both sexes (%), Out-of-School rate for children one year younger than official age, both sexes (%)
 UNICEF (August 2020): COVID-19: Are children able to continue learning during school closures?
 UNESCO/UNICEF/World Bank (October 2020): What Have We Learnt? Overview of Findings from a Survey of Ministries of Education on National Responses to COVID-19