Sabine Terlecki is the deputy lead of donor relations at the Global Partnership for Education.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, children and youth all over the world are no longer in classrooms. Home schooling has become the new normal. This is a new situation for everyone, everywhere — but in developing countries, COVID-19 poses enormous challenges for children and parents and further exacerbates existing inequalities.
In my own country of Germany, the education system normally functions quite well. However, like millions of people in Europe and all over the world, I am staying at home with my family. Home schooling is putting my patience (my son’s too, no doubt) to the test.
Parents are faced with an improbable and unprecedented balancing act of managing family life, acting as home-school teachers to our children, and keeping up with our everyday jobs. But we manage. On the last day of school, my children were provided all of their necessary books and materials. The teacher consistently transmits a weekly schedule and new learning material to our son and his classmates. We have also discovered some good online learning platforms, and talk to educators and other parents in video chat forums. To my children’s delight, the educational TV programs have quite a bit to offer.
COVID-19 exacerbates the education crisis in developing countries
However, in many developing countries, the circumstances are completely different. According to UNESCO, at its peak, COVID-19 deprived more than 1.5 billion children and youth of their schooling. Approximately 810 million of these students live in developing countries. 63 million teachers are affected by these closures globally.
In many lower-income countries, the pandemic is straining education systems even more. Many children lack textbooks; most families have no computer, let alone internet access; and some parents are illiterate, another barrier when it comes to offering educational support.
Moreover, school lockdowns mean that there is no access to basic social services and no regular meals for millions of children. The longer schools remain closed, the wider the equity gap grows, and the poorest and most marginalized children, especially girls, will be most affected.
Girls also face an increased risk of sexual violence and early marriage. During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, school closures led to a sharp increase in teenage pregnancies. In the case of boys, not going to school increases the risk of recruitment by armed groups. From the 63 million teachers currently affected by these closures worldwide, many will not be able to return to school once they reopen, as they will have accepted other jobs to make a living wage.
Moving forward with lessons learned and global support
Countries are managing the crisis based on their own circumstances and deciding what specific measures to take to ensure that education continues. A terrific example involves Sierra Leone’s experience with school lockdowns during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. At that time, with financial support from GPE, the government brought together the country’s best teachers to develop an educational radio program targeted at millions of students. With COVID-19 providing similar challenges, Sierra Leone is reviving the program and hoping to reach even more children.
Countries also need additional funds for educational programming on radio and television, textbooks and other relevant materials, public-awareness campaigns, and training for teachers in conducting distance learning. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), for which I work, cooperates closely with its 67 partner countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In April, we provided US$250 million in emergency assistance in order to ensure that children can continue to learn during the pandemic. Due to an extremely high demand for COVID-19 support, we have just increased our COVID-19 emergency funding to US$500 million.
In developing countries, COVID-19 will not only wreak havoc on the health of many citizens, but it will also have a devastating effect on the education of an entire generation — and could further affect social and economic development. Education should not stop because of a conflict, natural disaster, or health pandemic.
We must work together to ensure that children are continuing to learn outside of the classroom and return to schools once they reopen.