The COVID-19 pandemic surfaces another national emergency: the education of vulnerable children

During lockdown, traditional educational system had to adapt to a new reality emphasizing the need of investment in technology, resources, trainings so every child can access education

UNICEF
Pieter Bult, the UNICEF Reprezentative in Romania, showing a drawing to a child in a kindergarten.
UNICEF Anamaria Dinulescu
24 April 2020

Opinion article by Pieter Bult, UNICEF Representative in Romania

 

To be a parent these last weeks means to deal not only with unprecedented change, as we all become more aware of our need to be safe, protect and provide for our families and loved ones, but to also manage new routines for our ourselves and our children alike. All, in the same time. In lockdown, school has now moved, for many, online.

As a father, I am confronted with that reality daily. As a trained teacher, I can only imagine the challenge educators must now rise to. As a public servant in the benefit of children, I can offer the perspective UNICEF has developed to make sure all children stand a better chance to survive and thrive.

While doctors and nurses lead the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, an important emergency with consequences perhaps less visible right now is how we ensure continued access to education for all children.

We have all witnessed how The Ministry of Education’s remarkable initiative Lectii Online has sent schools through the inherent trial and error. The switch to education in lockdown mode tests everyone’s resilience, creativity and resourcefulness. We must stop and think how that happens for the country’s most vulnerable.

In spite of significant progress in child rights over the last 30 years, still  40 per cent of all children in Romania are still living in poverty or are at risk of social exclusion, one of the highest levels in the EU.

Major disparities persist between national averages and progress made by rural poor children, Roma children, and children with disabilities.

The early school leaving has dropped to an all-time low in Romania 15,7 per cent in 2019, but still higher than the EU average. Approximately 400,000 children remain out-of-school. Moreover, 44 per cent of all children in school at age 15 tested in the OECD PISA test did not meet minimal literacy and numeracy levels.

And given the strong connection between lack of education and lack of opportunity, our goal is to make sure all children stay in school as long as possible, learn as best as they can and thus have a better chance to thrive in life.

In our view much of this can be addressed by reversing the declining access of vulnerable populations to quality inclusive education.

UNICEF in Romania has worked extensively to develop, test, document and evaluate such solutions in the county of Bacau with fantastic results. Our Quality Inclusive Education initiative reached 51 schools in the same Bacau communities and over 22,000 children, out-of-which 15% at high risk of drop-out. As an early result, schools reduced absenteeism, and some managed to eliminate dropout all together.

The question becomes how to do that at times such as these.

How can we, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, continue to offer access to education to Romania’s most vulnerable children? Or how can we use this period to even further reduce absenteeism and drop-out?

Especially given the current distribution of resources, with fixed line internet penetration rates at 73.7 per cent in urban Romania and at 47.1 per cent rurally, where over 50 per cent of children in this country live.

And since we run the high risk of disrupting the education of so many children, there has never been a more urgent time to act.

One such solution would be to distribute free tablets or IT devices and data subscriptions to the vulnerable, so they can participate to online classes. That could be accomplished with resources from European funds.

Besides the acquisition and distribution of tablets or IT devices, training of the parents to support their children is critical, and we must also consider  the teachers training to increase their abilities to transmit information and educate while kindling the children’s appetite to engage and learn within lockdown confinements. Also, in order to ensure a proper quality of education the development of content for on-line and distance learning is another critical area.

In rural areas, living conditions for children vary from natural distancing and hence lack of connectedness in absence of routines such as going to school, to overcrowded small dwellings, which make focusing on learning all the more challenging.

Besides strengthening on-line learning and supporting digitalization of the education system, other distance learning solutions should be considered.   Where tablets and internet are not an option, printing and distributing materials from household to household can be, as it already happens in several countries, either with help of the community services or via postal services.

While the Ministry of Education has already announced the postponement of exams to the month of July, we should seriously consider the opportunity of summer schools and kindergartens, where vulnerable children, whose access to quality education risks to suffer the most, could receive much needed attention, connection and instruction.

Poor children, children from minority groups, or children with disabilities stand to lose the most, particularly when they also live in rural Romania. In the context of this pandemic, vulnerable children are exposed to even greater risks, such as family separation, lack of access to medical services, violence, abuse, and neglect, making continuing their education additionally difficult. They must therefore be significantly present in response plans.

As we thank our partners in the national, regional and local authorities as well as the non-governmental organisations for the tremendous collaboration, we are aware of the long road ahead.

Romania allocates the lowest GDP percentage to education of all countries in the EU, and even these scares  funds get mostly directed toward universities.

Investing in all children, including the most vulnerable, calls for a reversal of the pyramid, a redistribution of most of the funds to where most stand to benefit; early childhood and compulsory education. In turn, that will ensure larger cohorts for tertiary education, as more are prepared and dream to hold a university degree.

And with more funding needed for education, a bigger allocation from the state budget and reallocation within the Ministry of National Education’s budget, European Funds as well as loans from different European and international financial institutions are all solid options.