10 Education Issues That Should be on Your Radar During COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic will have a significant impact on learning that may linger even once schools re-open. Many countries have transitioned to some form of remote learning, but even so, school closures have caused a major disruption in education, especially for children whose circumstances make it harder for them to learn from home.
Even before the onslaught of COVID-19, many children struggled to learn. Estimates suggest that most children in sub-Saharan Africa experience learning poverty and are below grade level in literacy and math. Now, education for children everywhere is likely to be compromised further – but as we try to find a bright side amidst the chaos, perhaps this crisis can pave the way for higher quality education in the future.
Photo credit: Josiane Farand, Guatemala, September 2019
Here are 10 education issues to follow through the COVID-19 pandemic
1. School closures have the largest impact on the poorest students.
COVID-19 is constraining learning for children in both low-income and wealthy countries. But it’s the children from the poorest families who face the highest obstacles, like more limited access to remote learning tools and a home environment less conducive to quiet study. Their parents also may not have the time or skillsets to help with homework. Data on home resources for learning bear this out. In the US, just 54% of families with incomes under $30,000 US have a computer, 36% have a tablet and 56% have a broadband connection. Altogether, this translates into a high number of teens and children from low-income families struggling to complete schoolwork from home. At the same time, just over a fifth of all households in sub-Saharan Africa have Internet access. Even when governments deploy lessons through alternate platforms like radio and TV, the Brooking Institution suggests that children in low-income countries will likely have fewer learning opportunities overall (see graph).
2. COVID-19 will increase inequality as poor children struggle while wealthier ones continue to learn.
While children from the lowest income groups struggle to get school materials, their wealthy peers are managing with online resources, helped by parents who are themselves educated. Earlier this year, before COVID-19, a Brookings Institution report showed that family wealth is important when it comes to educational achievement and is a key factor in explaining the learning gap between children in poor versus wealthy families in the US.
3. Equity in education suggests that remote learning should be available only if all students have it.
It’s clear that not all students will have access to online learning or other forms of remote instruction. But does that mean it should not be offered to anyone until everyone can access it? This GEM report blog explains that education should not “do harm” by increasing inequality, as will certainly happen if only portions of society continue to learn during COVID-19 school closures. Clearly, to ensure equity in education during this crisis, groups more at risk of exclusion such as the poor, girls and people with disabilities will need more support.
4. Young learners will struggle more with remote platforms.
Reading is the most important skill learned in the early grades. If children can’t read by grade three when education transitions from “learning to read to reading to learn”, they will continue to struggle and are more likely to drop out of secondary school. In a remote learning environment, it’s harder to meet the special needs of young children. However, governments can take some steps to ensure that these children are not left behind.
5. Girls are more at risk of dropping out of school.
The Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014-16, which caused school closures for 8 months, showed that girls pay a heavy price during a pandemic. Not only are girls less likely to return to school once a crisis abates, they face greater risk of violence while confined at home. In some parts of Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancy increased 65% during the Ebola outbreak, often as a result of rape. Other girls, out of school for long periods, were married off without a chance to finish their education. Based on drop-out rates following Ebola, the Malala Fund estimates that 10 million secondary school girls may never return to school after the COVID-19 pandemic, even when it is safe to do so.
Photo credit: Josiane Farand, Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, Nicaragua, September 2019
6. Summer slump could turn into a COVID slide.
During a long summer break, children can forget more than a quarter of math and literacy skills gained the previous year. Now, as schools remain closed for even longer periods, learning loss will rise – especially for those without access to quality remote educational resources.
7. Long-term impact of lost learning can have life-long repercussions.
We know that education is crucial to ending poverty. Education leads to higher incomes, especially for women, and more opportunity. As COVID-19 disrupts access to a quality education, there is a real possibility that many children affected now will suffer income loss later in life.
8. Non-Internet remote learning platforms may be able to keep children learning.
Many governments are deploying alternate remote learning platforms to keep children engaged when families don’t have an Internet connection. The government in Sierra Leone used radio learning throughout the Ebola crisis in 2016 – with largely positive outcomes, according to the Global Partnership for Education. Listen to the testimonial (below) from War Child Canada, an organization that has long championed radio learning for disadvantaged girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also, 60 million girls has long been a proponent of offline learning using our Mobile Learning Lab (MLL). The MLL is currently set up in over 20 countries and we are exploring additional ways it can be deployed while ensuring social distancing.
9. Learning at home is harder when there is a “parenting gap”.
A large-scale move towards homeschooling works for children whose parents are able to stay home and who have the time and know-how to help children with schoolwork. For parents who are working, uneducated – even illiterate – or not fluent in the language used at their children’s school, homeschooling is more difficult. Their children are less likely to get the adult input they need. This is particularly true for young learners who depend more on active adult participation and guidance. A Brookings Institution report examined this issue several years ago and it is more relevant than ever today.
10. The global goal of universal education seems further away than ever.
The crisis in education will create setbacks for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of objectives designed to reduce poverty and hunger by 2030. The specific education goal, SDG 4, which calls for 12 years of free education and life-long learning for all, will be hard to meet under current circumstances. A concerted effort and renewed global commitment to education will be crucial to overcoming this setback. The graph below by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows reading levels – a key SDG 4 indicator – by region.
COVID-19 has exposed many inequalities in wealthy and poor countries alike. However, it also shines a light on where we need change the most. COVID-19 shows that it’s crucial to give all learners access to quality educational resources beyond the classroom setting. Further, in the absence of trained teachers, exposure to self-directed learning will enable young people to further their education as we wait out this pandemic – and give them the skills to help themselves.
Most of all, when government budgets are strained by the new demands wrought by COVID-19, education is not an area to cut back. Rather, the opposite is true. To keep the next generation healthy and able to contribute to society to the fullest extent possible, we must continue to invest in education so that all learners can benefit.