What Will It Take to Get All Children Back to School Despite COVID-19?
Education Cannot Wait’s Madge Thomas weighs in on how we can end the global education crisis.
Global education is in crisis as a result of COVID-19 related school closures and the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
While children in parts of the world have returned to some form of learning, millions of others in the most vulnerable areas have not, and a large number of them are at risk of never returning to school.
Another barrier to making sure that all children have access to education is the global digital divide, where many households do not have access to the tools required for remote learning — which has become a necessity as a result of the pandemic. Executive Director of Unicef, Henrieta H. Fore has pointed to this divide as one of the causes of the current global education crisis.
Not only is not accessing school having an immediate impact on children, but it will have a huge impact on them in the future. Girls, children with disabilities, and refugee children are among the most affected by school closures and socio-economic issues brought on by the pandemic. Some of the risks children face if they are unable to return to school include child pregnancy, child labor, and poor nutrition.
It is crucial to prioritize global education right now in order to limit, and eventually eliminate, these risks. We spoke to Education Cannot Wait’s Madge Thomas, head of innovative finance, philanthropic and private sector partnerships, to determine how we can bring the global education crisis to an end.
Madge Thomas, Head of Innovative Finance, Philanthropic and Private Sector Partnerships at Education Cannot Wait
Before the pandemic, what was the state of global education? And how has the pandemic affected that state?
Before the pandemic we already had a lot of challenges when it came to global education. There were 264 million children out of school around the world, 75 million of those were in conflict- and crisis-affected areas and had their education disrupted and interrupted.
We’d done a good job in the last five to 10 years of getting education prioritized on the global landscape because I think it hadn’t been for a long time. All those gains that we’d made, we were proud of and we’d really fought hard for them… When the pandemic hit I think the reality was that everyone, as in many crises, leaped straight to the immediate outcomes that they can observe.
What people didn’t realize initially is how much of a consequence there has been to education as part of the pandemic.
I mentioned it was about 264 million children out of school before, it’s now 1.5 billion children around the world. Having that many children out of school is a loss of learning, there’s huge studies done on what a loss of learning can mean over a child’s lifetime, even for a month at a time.
Why does the world need to prioritize resuming global education?
What we’re seeing right now is what happens in any crisis, that you address the most visible needs first, and the reason that education is an afterthought is that it isn’t instantly visible the impact being out of school has on a child.
Education has a lifelong impact on a child and it can create, for the world, the leaders that we want to see in the future.
The reason that I think education can’t be an afterthought is that it’s fundamental to recovery, to actually embed the knowledge, the learning, and the resilience in kids in the classroom that they’re going to need, not just to survive the pandemic, but to thrive going on, in making sure that we prevent the risk in something like this ever happening again.
If we lose an entire generation of kids in whatever country around the world because we didn’t reach them with education during this pandemic, or they lost their education for enough time that they were demotivated to ever go back to it, we lose the potential of a huge and great leadership force for humanity. We lose the potential for all of those kids to make a difference in their countries, in their world, to improve the communities around them… For girls, early marriage or forced marriage is a bigger risk; also early pregnancy and child labor are risks across the board.
The potential for us to recover as a world, as a humanity, and to grow together starts in the classroom, and it could be changed for the better by what we do in this moment to educate and empower our kids.
What threats do children face if they’re unable to attend school?
What people don’t talk about so much, and what I hope the pandemic is teaching all parents is that there is a huge mental health impact on kids from being out of school. That is something that, again, might not be immediately visible… Social engagement is such an important part of a child’s development and the foundation for that is what they get in the classroom with their peers and their teachers, and that’s where they also learn about how the world operates and about right and wrong… so when you remove them from that, the impact on a child’s psychology is enormous.
In addition to that, when you isolate children who are naturally social creatures, it has another impact on them, and that is something that children that we deal with in conflict and crisis are faced with a lot because they’re usually on the move. They’ve been taken away from everything they know in countries they live in, usually they’ve lost members of their family or are separated from them. They don’t have that interaction with the familiarity of teachers and the children around them, and the impact that has on a child is trauma, and it’s trauma that can sometimes be very hard for them to recover from.
That’s why I say that education is a lifesaving tool because actually getting them back in a classroom and getting them back to a sense of regularity is sometimes what helps. But for kids right now around the world, that’s the reality. They are isolated, they are removed from everything they know, they are losing family members, they are hearing about global tragedy, and the communities around them are faced with tragedy and crisis. That compounding trauma is a huge consequence that I don’t think we talk about often enough.
Madge Thomas sits alongside Global Citizen Ambassador Rachel Brosnahan and Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans in Peru to advocate for education in emergencies, 2019.
There’s also the importance of reaching kids with the services they need; whether it’s the things they normally get in school like mental health support, food and nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, and the information that you get about what’s going on in the world around you, and just basics on how to deal with this virus, usually kids get those messages in school.
Remote learning has become a necessary medium for global education, but we know that millions of children cannot access this. What needs to happen for that to change?
It’s a tragedy and it’s never been so visible, and the problem is that it’s an equity issue. The starting point is that there’s a difference in this world between the haves and the have nots, and remote learning is a symptom of that. I think the first thing we can do is to acknowledge that it is an equity issue and that there’s a fundamental gap, that provides children in wealthier parts of the world with tools and access that children in others don’t have.
The second part is to think about remote learning as an end consequence of a whole lot of other things that are missing. It’s not just about getting kids a tablet so they can do remote learning, in some parts if you gave a kid a tablet or a phone, they don’t have internet, and that’s because in their communities, for example in central Sahel, there is not a wifi connection or a tower for miles around because frankly, those aren’t the kids that are prioritized as future customers for large scale telecommunications companies and other organizations. The equity issue is very much entrenched in who’s wealthy enough to afford the access that they need.
You have to approach this optimistically but also practically, and that is to map out — and we’re doing a lot of this right now, Unicef and UNHCR, and others are doing a lot of this — to map out where in the world there’s already the infrastructure, and improve that to make sure it gets to the most remote and rural regions if it is there.
Then map out the parts of the world where there is absolutely nothing, and figure out what a pathway to remote learning actually looks like. You need to make absolutely sure that you are ticking these things off in the right order: making sure that you have the right infrastructure, then making sure that you have the ability for the most vulnerable kids and communities to connect to it, then making sure they have the hardware and the software to actually have learning in their communities and in their classrooms.
The last part is making sure that whatever that is, whatever that online or remote learning is, is of quality standards because there’s a lot out there that isn’t. There’s no point in getting a child remote learning if it’s not actually going to help their learning outcomes at the end of the day.
The last part of all of that is… we need to measure the impact of this kind of learning for these kids. It would be great to get them all the technology and tools in the world, but if we don’t see that it’s making a difference to their growth, it’s not going to be impactful at all.
In a world where we have defeated the pandemic, do you think there will still be a need for remote learning? Is remote learning the next step, or the way we should be looking at education for the future?
Absolutely. I think in most countries there will probably be some form of hybrid learning for the next few years which is terrifying on one hand, but it gives us the opportunity to ideate and make what we have available remotely better, and develop a really great set of resources for kids that are able to learn remotely.
I mentioned the 75 million children out of school in conflict and crisis, for those kids, a tool like remote learning, if they have access to infrastructure and whatever they need to access it, it’s invaluable because as I said, these kids are on the move or in the farthest-flung areas where they can’t easily access education. I mean, I hope this is the only pandemic we experience in our lifetime, but if it’s not, if there’s other strains that come through, or mutations or another pandemic in a few years or another kind of crisis like an environmental one, it’s going to force kids out of school again and they will need to revert to this.
In terms of what that looks like, and in terms of whether it is just standard internet, I think we have to be more innovative than that, because the reality is that not everyone is starting at the same benchmark. For the areas like the Sahel, where there is nothing right now, we can’t wait to have all of the tools of remote learning in place to try and educate kids, so we have to get creative and rather than talking about remote learning, I would talk about innovative learning and innovative approaches to teaching kids.
One of those can be by digital technology and laptops and devices; our director Yasmine Sherif was just in Lebanon and she saw how kids there that have just got back to school after COVID-19 and the Beirut explosion last year, are holding any smartphones that they have as though they’re gold dust, because that is their connection with the classroom, and they have this huge appreciation for learning through that.
But, in parts of the world like the Sahel, radio has been a godsend. We’ve used radio programs to broadcast out learning to as many children as possible, a little transistor radio with a battery is all that some kids have sitting out under a tree, in the middle of the desert, they’re still able to have some sort of connection with the teachers and their classrooms.
There’s also other ways of teaching kids… we just need to get better at getting some of those forms of learning to all kids, but especially to those that can’t access digital learning straight away.
It’s predicted that global funding for education will decrease in the next year. How important is this funding and how can it be increased?
I think it’s just evidence of what we’ve known for several years and what I think the world has been heading towards, which is that governments are increasingly retreating from their responsibility to the poorest in the world.
[However] there’s been something we’ve been seeing with the pandemic which we’ve wanted to see for a lot of years, which is the private sector and other actors stepping up.
The challenge of that is going to be that in some parts of the world, and rightly so, private entities are not trusted; they don’t have the same level of trust from communities. That trust takes time to build so in the meantime what we’re going to need from absolutely everyone, is partnership, partnership, partnership.
I don’t think one group can do it on their own, I think you need governments to work with private sector, to work with the UN, to work with grassroots and NGO responders on the ground, in order to not just mobilize the funds we need, but to make sure that they’re delivered to the right people in the right areas and in the right ways that they’re going to have the impact that we want to see.
The one thing that I would encourage is for all those private sector companies that are interested in supporting and genuinely making an impact on people in the world during this pandemic, to work with others… and to really build on what we have learned.
There’s a huge openness from the UN and from others to work with those companies that are interested right now, and I think governments are also looking for that support and backing for them to put some of their capital towards it. The last thing I would say is that we’ve seen how the richest people in the world have become even richer during this pandemic so, what we have to realize is that the best way that people can support is with unfettered contributions to organizations like ours, or to global entities that know what they’re doing, or that have already scoped out the needs on the ground. That is the best way that people who have profited during the pandemic can help.
Resuming education for all children everywhere is part of Global Citizen’s Recovery Plan for the World campaign. Without immediate action, millions of children may never return to school after the pandemic. Take action with us here to help make sure that children are supported and to help resume learning for all.