The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 per cent of the world’s student population, up to 99 per cent in low and lower-middle income countries.
The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults – those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons – to continue their learning. Learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress, not least in support of girls and young women’s educational access and retention. Some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone.
Similarly, the education disruption has had, and will continue to have, substantial effects beyond education. Closures of educational institutions hamper the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to nutritious food, affect the ability of many parents to work, and increase risks of violence against women and girls.
As fiscal pressures increase, and development assistance comes under strain, the financing of education could also face major challenges, exacerbating massive pre-COVID-19 education funding gaps. For low income countries and lower-middle-income countries, for instance, that gap had reached a staggering $148 billion annually and it could now increase by up to one-third.
On the other hand, this crisis has stimulated innovation within the education sector. We have seen innovative approaches in support of education and training continuity: from radio and television to take-home packages. Distance learning solutions were developed thanks to quick responses by governments and partners all over the world supporting education continuity, including the Global Education Coalition covened by UNESCO. We have also been reminded of the essential role of teachers and that governments and other key partners have an ongoing duty of care to education personnel.
But these changes have also highlighted that the promising future of learning, and the accelerated changes in modes of delivering quality education, cannot be separated from the imperative of leaving no one behind. This is true for children and youth affected by a lack of resources or enabling environment to access learning. It is true for the teaching profession and their need for better training in new methods of education delivery, as well as support. Last but not least, this is true for the education community at large, including local communities, upon whom education continuity depends during crisis and who are key to building back better.
The COVID-19 crisis and the unparalleled education disruption is far from over. As many as 100 countries have yet to announce a date for schools to reopen and across the world, governments, unions, parents and children are grappling with when and how to approach the next phase. Countries have started planning to reopen schools nationwide, either based on grade level and by prioritizing exam classes, or through localized openings in regions with fewer cases of the virus. However, given the continued virulence of the virus, the majority of countries surveyed in May–June 2020 had yet to decide on a reopening date. These decisions carry enormous social and economic implications and will have lasting effects on educators, on children and youth, on their parents – especially women – and indeed on societies as a whole.
Preventing a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe requires urgent action from all.
Education is not only a fundamental human right. It is an enabling right with direct impact on the realization of all other human rights. It is a global common good and a primary driver of progress across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a bedrock of just, equal, inclusive peaceful societies. When education systems collapse, peace, prosperous and productive societies cannot be sustained.
In order to mitigate the potentially devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and stakeholders are encouraged to pursue the following policy responses:
> SUPPRESS TRANSMISSION OF THE VIRUS AND PLAN THOROUGHLY FOR SCHOOL RE-OPENINGS: The single most significant step that countries can take to hasten the reopening of schools and education institutions is to suppress transmission of the virus to control national or local outbreaks. Once they have done so, to deal with the complex challenge of reopening, it is important to be guided by the following parameters: ensure the safety of all; plan for inclusive re-opening; listen to the voices of all concerned; and coordinate with key actors, including the health community.
> PROTECT EDUCATION FINANCING AND COORDINATE FOR IMPACT: The pandemic has pushed the world into the deepest global recession in living memory which will have lasting effects on economies and public finances. National authorities and the international community need to protect education financing through the following avenues: strengthen domestic revenue mobilization, preserve the share of expenditure for education as a top priority and address inefficiencies in education spending; strengthen international coordination to address the debt crisis; and protect official development assistance (ODA) for education.
> BUILD RESILIENT EDUCATION SYSTEMS FOR EQUITABLE AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Strengthening the resilience of education systems enables countries to respond to the immediate challenges of safely reopening schools and positions them to better cope with future crises. In this regard, governments could consider the following: focus on equity and inclusion; reinforce capacities for risk management, at all levels of the system; ensure strong leadership and coordination; and enhance consultation and communication mechanisms.
> REIMAGINE EDUCATION AND ACCELERATE CHANGE IN TEACHING AND LEARNING: The massive efforts made in a short time to respond to the shocks to education systems remind us that change is possible. We should seize the opportunity to find new ways to address the learning crisis and bring about a set of solutions previously considered difficult or impossible to implement. The following entry points could be to the fore of our efforts: focus on addressing learning losses and preventing dropouts, particularly of marginalized groups; offer skills for employability programmes; support the teaching profession and teachers’ readiness; expand the definition of the right to education to include connectivity; remove barriers to connectivity; strengthen data and monitoring of learning; strengthen the articulation and flexibility across levels and types of education and training.