COVID-19, an opportunity to bridge the digital gap and reform education systems in the region

Article published by Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper on 26 December 2020

Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa
Chaiban wearing a mask and sitting in a class room with children
03 January 2021

Restrictions on movement and closure of schools have had a severe impact on children’s daily routines, their social interactions, and ultimately on their mental well-being across the Middle East and North Africa.

According to recent UNICEF-supported surveys:

  • Nearly 40 per cent of families expressed concerns about the damages that the COVID-19 crisis is having on the education of their children.
  • Half of the parents said that distance learning was ineffective, due to lack in resources, limited access to internet, lack of support from adult family members and difficulties to connect with teachers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in recent history. All places of learning in the region —from preschools to universities—were disrupted in an effort to stop the transmission of the virus. At the peak of lockdowns and movement restrictions, this affected the education of more than 110 million children and young people in the Middle East and North Africa.

To minimize disruption to schooling, UNICEF supported education authorities’ around the region in their efforts to provide online solutions for the continuity of learning. However, digital access is not always available and the gap is too wide. In MENA, 10 countries have internet penetration of less than 70 per cent. In Sudan and Yemen, access levels are even lower, with Internet penetration at only 30 per cent. Barriers preventing access to remote learning include the lack of specific resources and assets in the households (TV sets, computers and internet connection), the lack of support to adult members of the household to help children focus on learning,  and difficulties to be in direct contact with teachers through remote means.   And of the many lessons we learned during this pandemic, it is evident that there is no substitute to a teacher, parent or resource person and preferably all three accompanying the child as she or he learns.  

UNICEF is scaling up blended learning approaches that combine in person and remote instruction critical to support children recover and accelerate their learning following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

UNICEF continues to support with the safe reopening of schools – including to provide hygiene and cleaning material- reaching 28,000 schools across the region until end of October. The UNICEF developed Teachers Preparedness Training Package- the first available in the world- is a kit for  teachers that provides guidance and advice on education and teaching in the time of COVID.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not brought with it an end to violence and armed conflict in far too many countries in the region. Many schools continued to be unsafe for children in this region. Attacks on schools are one of the six grave violations of children’s rights. This region continues to record the highest number of attacks against schools and education facilities.

Schools are a place of sanctuary, a place where children are able to learn, grow, foster their potential, acquire the skills they need for the future, ask questions and be challenges to solve problems. But schools go beyond learning: they are a place that gives the child confidence, a place where children play, make friendships that often last a lifetime and mostly a place where children are safe. Sadly, very often, the sanctuary of schools has been severely violated in the region.

Every child in the region deserves to have an equal opportunity to access education. Unless the education sector is prioritized, we will see a reversal in progress made to increase access to education, further increasing inequity in societies and economies for generations to come.

So, what needs to happen to secure that, here are a few recommendations:

  • Schools should re-open across the region following hygiene protocols including physical distancing, promoting regular and thorough handwashing, good respiratory hygiene, keeping education facilities clean, ventilated and hygienic, using protective equipment including face masks, and monitoring student and staff health while maintaining regular contact with local health authorities.
  • Provide children with opportunities to get the chance to catch up on what they missed out during lockdown so they do not fall further behind.
  • Maintain the protection, health and wellbeing of children especially services that many children access only while in schools including social support, food, and health and nutrition.
  • Bridging the digital divide to increase and improve children’s access across the region to remote learning tools including via TV, radio and online platforms.
  • Adjust policies, securing additional financing, mobilizing community support and parental engagement. And above all, provide support to the teachers, who are key to keeping children engaged whether in the classroom or at home.
  • In conflict countries, parties to the conflict must spare schools and other education facilities from attacks at all times in line with International Humanitarian Law.

UNICEF confirms its commitment to support the education and learning of children across the region. Now is the time to work together to find innovative ways to bring education to children whether in the classroom or remotely. It is a chance to wish all girls and boys around the region a healthy, safe and fruitful new year ahead.

We salute every teacher across the region for their extraordinary efforts to provide children with education and overcome what was lost in the past year.  

You can read the published article in Arabic here.