Education has to be at the center of the response to COVID-19 to fulfill the goal to “build back better” and achieve inclusive and more equitable societies. Half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by the pandemic, according to recent studies published by the United Nations University, which would set back progress on standards of living and fundamental human rights by 30 years. This is an urgent warning, but more importantly a call to action.
For many, telecommuting and online learning are becoming the new normal, which will prevail in some form long after the recovery. In many countries, however, the lack of financial resources, infrastructure and information and communications technology (ICT) connectivity means that continuing education for the most vulnerable students will require innovation and partnerships to fulfill the basic human right to education. We are bound together and the welfare of the most vulnerable will affect us all.
Despite progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, prior to the outbreak there were already 258 million out-of-school children worldwide, almost half of whom are in the Asia-Pacific. Among people who are 15 and older, 773 million worldwide are illiterate — 446 million in the Asia-Pacific, almost two-thirds of whom are girls and women.
Without action now, inequality will worsen and shape the future of learning. COVID-19 has affected more than 91 percent of learners worldwide and left almost 1.6 billion out of school. Some of those students will never be able to return to school again. For girls and women in the least-developed countries, the higher risks of drop-outs could lead to widening the gender gap and attendant risks of sexual abuse, child and forced marriage, and other forms of exploitation.
The Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO in late March, in concert with a wide range of U.N. agencies, international organizations, the private sector and civil society, is building essential partnerships to ensure inclusive and equitable continuing education. This is an open coalition calling on organizations to contribute free-of-charge support, tools and services, with an emphasis on “free” to help those most in need.
Across the Asia-Pacific, policymakers are focusing on learners whose vulnerability is compounded because of the public health and socio-economic disruption. In India, for example, government and other education providers are reaching out with inclusive programs for all learners, including those specifically tailored for disabled children and youth to ensure their continuing education and health and safety.
Many of the learners who most need support have little or no access to the internet. Across the Asia-Pacific as of 2017, only 55 percent of people were connected online, clearly requiring mass-scale responses in addition to online learning. Practical, immediate steps that are being taken in the region include the delivery of new learning materials and textbooks by local transport services, TV and radio education programs, teacher-student 2G mobile phone lessons and home visits observing physical distancing.
Many of the solutions that can be implemented most immediately build on exiting initiatives. In Thailand, for example, the Distance Learning Television program developed for learners in remote rural areas is now being extended nationwide with new courses being recorded to broaden the curricula. In schools and learning centers enrolling low-income and migrant students, tablets loaded with reading and math lessons in multiple languages are already enabling learning offline.
There needs to be a strategic shift in resource allocation at the community and country levels to support new methods of learning — and the learners, teachers and civil society during a difficult time. At the international level, effective solutions will fundamentally be about the distribution of resources without discrimination, especially for young people.
Education initiatives also need to be appropriate to the context of each country. In Afghanistan, for example, the Ministry of Education has quickly put together a plan based on self-learning, distance learning and small-group learning, which draws not only on IT-enabled lessons via television and mobile apps but also on the strengths of communities. Literate parents, religious leaders and upper secondary school students are among the instructors for primary education, while in exceptional cases in hard-to-reach areas, small groups of five to eight students and a teacher will meet in open-air settings while observing physical distancing.
These efforts and many others need a full range of support, including financial, as part of the comprehensive response to COVID-19. This is an opportunity to rethink education and inequality in our societies, including the digital divide that is separating so many during this time of crisis. As the Global Education Coalition calls for, new partnerships need to be forged to assure the inclusive and equitable provision of distance education for all learners.
Education is not a panacea, but it is the most powerful tool for the most vulnerable to get out of their predicament, whether it is poverty or a pandemic. Quality learning should take place equally for all girls and boys to achieve a peaceful and sustainable future.
Shigeru Aoyagi is director of the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.
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