The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented situation whereby schooling has been disrupted for almost 1.6 billion children and youth as governments enforce total or partial closures of schools in efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Higher education institutions have also suspended classes. As of late April, UNESCO estimates that 91% of those enrolled in formal education programmes have been affected.
The closure of schools, universities, technical and vocational training institutes has also affected refugee learners and students. In these challenging times, displaced and refugee students are at a particular disadvantage and there is a risk that progress in increased enrolment may be eroded. The suspension of school feeding programmes could affect the nutrition and health status of refugee children and youth. Lessons drawn from other pandemic responses that included extended school closures have shown that girls are less likely to return to school and are at greater risk of falling behind1 . As many governments move to at-home learning modalities, many refugees are disadvantaged as they experience uneven access to distance education and online learning opportunities and hardware, and do not have access to support services such as language classes.
As national governments and UNHCR operations respond to school closures and the impact of the pandemic on education, it is important to adopt a sequenced approach, first mitigating the cessation of some of the protection and support services offered through schools such as school feeding schemes, protection against violence, and mental health and psychosocial support programmes. Continued payment of teacher incentives and cash-for-education programmes is key to both protecting the education workforce, and continuing to support refugees’ livelihoods. The current phase of the response is focusing on supporting access to continued opportunities to learn and supporting teachers to adapt to new teaching modalities.
It is also important to begin preparing early for the re-opening of schools and resumption of activities, possibly with physical distancing measures in place, acknowledging the practical challenges that this poses in many of the contexts in which UNHCR works. Schools must be safe to re-open and WASH facilities may need to be improved and additional handwashing opportunities introduced. Additional support may be needed for students who have fallen behind; teachers may require support in disseminating public health messages and managing children and parents’ anxiety after lock-down measures.
UNHCR has a key role to play in advocating for and ensuring the inclusion of refugees in national response plans to ensure the continuity of learning. Engagement with communities is also key to understanding the extent to which refugees have access to the home-based learning programmes introduced by governments. As this pandemic has the risk of deepening existing inequalities in education, early action is needed – in coordination with other partners – to minimize the risk of refugee children and youth being left behind.