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Why we should prioritise quality education during COVID-19


ONE youth activists Vittoria Anelli and Andrea Mosca share why prioritising quality education is necessary during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disruptive effect on public education all around the world. According to the UN, 1.6 billion children across more than 190 countries have suffered from school lockdowns, affecting approximately up to 98% of learners worldwide.

Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, millions of children did not have access to a good quality education due to conflicts and violence, cultural norms that might exclude girls and children with disabilities from schooling, and poor infrastructures. The current crisis has worsened the situation, fueling inequalities all around the world. As data from the Ebola pandemic suggests, when schools open again, girls will be less likely to come back, closing off opportunities for themselves and their communities to thrive.

COVID-19 made us all realize, in our daily lives, what it means not to have access to education and learning experiences routinely planned for us. Many have experienced schooling in the past months through distance learning platforms, which has highlighted the difference between a quality education and simply access to education. The sole connection through a webcam with your teacher often is not enough to ensure human development in terms of learning.

Even more so, there is unequal access when it comes digital learning — for students in parts of the world where internet access is limited or scarce, like those in low-income countries, accessing school online might not even be a possibility. Much more needs to be done to digitalise education and make it efficient and effective despite contextual hardships.

Quality education is key for the accomplishment of many SDGs

COVID-19 has challenged countries in many ways, deeply impacting literally every sector of our lives. Yet, a large number of these repercussions are posing incredible challenges to children.

According to ILO, the “scarring effect” of the pandemic is going to affect mainly the younger generations, who are exposed to losses in future earnings and will encounter difficulties to enter into the labour market. For instance, according to a recent ILO presentation, manufacturing and wholesale/retail sectors, which before the pandemic accounted for 17.5% and 13.8% of global youth employment, with a high percentage of young women (41.7% and 36.9%), were impacted by the millions of jobs lost because of COVID-19.

We as young people deserve a particular focus in pandemic responses to avoid becoming the “lockdown generation” — not employed, not educated, not trained.

Even though COVID-19 has disrupted education by forcing school closures and impacting the lives of children all over the world, leaders still do not seem to recognise the important role that education plays in our society. Delivering quality education, and thus achieving SDG 4, is key for ensuring that young people in the world acquire skills and knowledge essential for ensuring decent employment and economic growth, SDG 8. Skilled youth will not only improve their own future, but the future of all their communities, where they can act as positive catalyzers and be instrumental actors in the eradication of extreme poverty, leading to the achievement of SDG 1.

Furthermore, COVID-19 is creating intergenerational education inequalities. According to the UN indicators, 40% of the low-income countries failed to support learners at risk during the COVID crisis. A Human Rights Watch’s study explains that this is mainly due to the limited access to technologies (hardware and connectivity, not mentioning electricity). In a digital world of the third century, scholars were forced to be creative and use analogical means of communication to overcome that problem, for example by using radio transmissions to coordinate learners on their textbook progression.

Emergency responses, though, can’t cover up structural deficiencies and surely can’t provide quality education to young boys and girls. As a consequence, the World Bank already foresees a reduction in the average learning level, resulting in a greater gap in the distribution of learning achievements and a significant increase of massive dropouts.

Actions to take

It is important to understand that education is a long-term investment which will repay our societies in the future. Now is the time to reshape this sector in order to build resilience and to meaningfully engage the youngest generation.

In order for the youth of today to be ready to face the challenges of the near future, we need critical thinking and innovation. Learning should not be conceived as mere acquisition of information and notions, but it should be seen as a process of personal development through which each person can understand their strengths and weaknesses and acquire abilities accordingly. Learning isn’t about being a passive hearer — learning should be about human development, self-empowerment, and reaching high proficiency standards. How are young boys and girls supposed to reach those levels, if an estimated 617 million children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school lacked minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics in 2015?

UNESCO warns that the pandemic has increased the education financing gap (what is needed to be invested versus the actual education budget) by 18% in low- and middle-income countries due to the higher unit cost of education (an estimated US$39 billion, on a previous gap of 148 billion). It means that the annual costs are rising, adding more expenses to the SDG 4 goal.

We need long-term investments to address this issue. We need adequate facilities, trained teachers, accessible technology, and digital literacy if we want to provide those younger generations with a chance. In order to do this, global leaders must be ambitious and agree on a multilateral financial plan to grant the required funds.

Education affects the thoughts and actions of the leaders of tomorrow. Now more than ever we need to recognize that education is at the basis of the achievement of a fair, sustainable, and resilient society.

On 22 October, education stakeholders came together to launch a white paper under the #SaveOurFuture campaign with high priority recommendations to deliver changes in the next six to 24 months. Read more here.

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