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The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is making the stark digital divide in education more apparent than ever as children around the world try to learn remotely, new data shows.

The United Nations’ education agency UNESCO released figures from the International Telecommunication Union that were collected by the Teacher Task Force, an international coalition of teachers, on Tuesday.

At least 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers are affected by school closures in the wake of the pandemic in 191 countries. The data revealed that half of all students, nearly 830 million children, who are not currently attending school due to stay-at-home orders, do not have access to a computer. More than 40% do not have internet access at home. 

Education advocates say the disparity is a major threat to education. 

"This is going to mean that low-income and disadvantaged students fall further behind their more advantaged peers," Brian A. Jacob, economics professor at the University of Michigan, who is not affiliated with UNESCO, told Global Citizen.

"This is not unique to COVID. In any natural disaster that disrupts standard social service systems, including education, the disadvantaged are going to be hurt disproportionately because they have fewer other resources to call on," he added. 

The lack of access to digital resources is especially prevalent in low-income countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89% of learners do not have access to household computers, and 82% lack internet access, according to UNESCO. 

About 56 million students, half of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, live in areas that cannot access mobile networks, which makes it even more difficult to connect with teachers and peers, the data showed.

While mobile phones are by the most widely used internet-enabled device, they are difficult to use as a virtual learning tool to teach a K-12 curriculum, Jacob pointed out.

Teachers in low-income countries also lack support as they try to continue teaching children remotely. Only 64% of primary and 50% of secondary teachers have received minimum online training and necessary access to information and communication technology.

"The numbers are probably even worse than they seem," Jacob continued. "Even if there is official internet access, the level of connectivity and reliability in many places — rural or densely-packed urban areas — is much worse."

UNESCO launched the Global Education Coalition in late March to address the gaps in online learning by uniting more than 90 public and private sector partners to develop solutions and "make the digital revolution inclusive," Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education, said in a press release. The agency is considering alternative routes like radio and television broadcasts to provide children living in poverty access to education.

"I'm hoping that this COVID pandemic, and this kind of attention placed on it, will lead to action on the part of government agencies, nonprofits, or others to try to increase technology access," Jacob said.


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