World

We Cannot Let the Education Gap Widen at the Start of the Decade of Action

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Yasmine Sherif is Director, Education Cannot Wait

NEW YORK, May 13 2020 (IPS) - Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we estimated that 75 million children and youth – of whom 39 million are girls – were not able to access a quality education in countries impacted by armed conflicts, forced displacement, natural disasters and climate change-induced emergencies. The impact of COVID-19 has both globally and exponentially deepened the already existing critical education crisis.

In countries affected by humanitarian crises, restrictive movement measures (including curfews), have led to the closure of schools and loss of access to education, psychosocial services, school feeding, hygiene and protection – all components of a quality education.

In many of these countries, weak infrastructure does not allow for remote learning through technology. In most parts of Afghanistan, in the Central African Republic or in Chad, to mention just a few, remote technological learning is simply not an option today – further contributing to the education divide. At the same time, we know that quality, inclusive education is a foundational Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4) necessary to advance all other SDGs.

In the words of the President of the UN General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande: “Given the importance of education in achieving the 2030 Agenda, we must ensure that we urgently tackle the disruptions that the pandemic has already caused … While it has been easier for developed countries to transit to remote learning, many governments around the world found it difficult or impossible.”

The President of the UN General Assembly concluded, “We cannot allow this pandemic to widen the educational gap that already exists. I call on you all [193 Member States] to make cooperation in education a key element in your response to this pandemic.”

Indeed, in countries affected by armed conflicts and forced displacement, we can expect to see a significant increase in long-term loss of access to inclusive quality education due to COVID-19. We will see an increase in school drop-out rates and a reduction in psychosocial support and other protection mechanisms for students and teachers alike. This, in turn, will impact socio-economic development and the ability to build back better.

A crisis, however complicated it is, must be a trigger for immediate action, rather than a cause for delay. An early response stands greater chances of mitigating the impact and reduce the risk of a growing education divide. As the President of the UN General Assembly highlighted, education needs to be a priority within the COVID-19 response.

Thanks to the support of Education Cannot Wait’s strategic donor constituency, a coordinated, comprehensive emergency investment was rapidly released in April to UN agencies and Civil Society organizations to enable them to quickly deliver education support for vulnerable girls and boys in 26 crisis-affected countries.

This emergency investment empowers: Ministries of Education in developing catch-up programmes and condensed curricula to prevent loss in the school year; production of distance learning material for pre-primary, primary and secondary levels; home-based learning and special measures for children with disabilities; expansion of radio and television education; COVID-19 awareness raising for children, parents and teachers; disinfection of schools; access to improved water and hygiene facilities and supplies; psychosocial counselling; and, the continued payment of teachers’ salaries during the crisis.

However, the needs remain enormous and urgent. Education Cannot Wait will therefore release a second round of investments in June. To this end, we have launched an appeal to both public and private sector donors for $50 million. We are deeply grateful to the United Kingdom and the LEGO Foundation for their swift contributions to cover 42% of the appeal, while Denmark has matched and frontloaded committed funding. However, at the time of writing, $29 million, is still urgently needed.

Unless we invest in education now – in the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis – much of the progress made through joint efforts among many different actors and organizations will be lost; perhaps irreversibly for millions of girls and boys, whose vulnerabilities will rapidly increase. Whatever befalls us in the coming ten years, whatever crises we face, there is one thing we cannot do. We cannot slide back on our progress and let the gap widen during the Decade of Action.