As many countries cautiously reopen classrooms, schools remain crucial barometers of our progress toward ending the COVID-19 crisis. We need to keep children healthy while protecting their right to an education, but the pandemic has hit the most vulnerable children hardest and exposed the worsening inequality of learning opportunities. We must now heed these harsh lessons and transform education systems to make them more equitable, effective, and resilient.
School closures have been one of the many measures that governments have adopted to contain a virus that so far has claimed 3.4 million lives. At their peak, over 1.6 billion children were cut off from education – half of them in low- and lower middle-income countries.
Although we cannot yet fully grasp the long-term implications of this lost learning for the hundreds of millions who are still missing out on school, it clearly will have a life-changing impact on the most vulnerable children, especially girls. An estimated 20 million girls may never set foot in a classroom again because they have been sent to work to help provide for their families. As many as 13 million could be forced into early marriage and thus forego their education altogether. For millions of others, school closures have increased their risk of teenage pregnancy or of becoming victims of domestic violence.
Given this grim reality, each school reopening is a victory that can potentially change children’s lives permanently for the better. But rather than simply return to pre-crisis approaches to learning, we must transform education systems entirely. We cannot go back to a status quo of unequal opportunities and poor learning outcomes, in which a quarter-billion children were already out of school and over half of all ten-year-olds in lower-income countries lacked basic reading skills.
Together, we must deliver a global recovery built on a foundation of education systems that deliver quality learning to all children, no matter where they live, how prosperous or poor their families might be, or who they are. And we need to begin by ensuring that children can return safely to schools that offer a clean environment with effective ventilation, sufficient toilets, and other basic amenities.
Countries can also use distance-learning tools to reach children outside the classroom, opening up new possibilities to educate those who were previously cut off from formal education. School closures due to COVID-19 have only hastened the need for alternative delivery methods so that every child can continue to learn.
Even before the pandemic, organizations like the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) were helping to enable learning beyond the traditional classroom. In Afghanistan, for example, advanced learning centers and more accessible and equitable community-based education have proven successful. These options give children in remote areas – especially girls, who had often been excluded from education altogether – a chance to learn.
In Pakistan’s Balochistan and Sindh provinces, we have seen how technology, including smartphone applications like WhatsApp, can support teachers in serving children in less accessible areas. And Sierra Leone, drawing on its experience during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, has emphasized radio learning during the current crisis, with GPE support enabling children to benefit from education programs that were broadcast while schools were shut.
Initiatives like these can be woven into education systems to make them more inclusive, so that they deliver learning at the scale needed to address past inequities. That in turn can help to bridge the education gaps left not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by conflicts, poverty, natural disasters, or the effects of climate change.
By channeling support through partner-country governments to national education systems, the GPE has so far helped to get 160 million more children into school, more than half of them girls. Moreover, GPE funds attract other donor contributions to multiply the organization’s financial support, in line with national education priorities.
This approach is fundamental to catalyzing necessary change and delivering it at the scale demanded by today’s education emergency. To date, 97% of GPE-backed education-sector plans include strategies to reach the most marginalized children in lower-income countries, particularly girls and children with disabilities.
In the wake of the pandemic, governments also must find the funds to shock-proof their education systems for the future. That means not only developing and integrating distance-learning options, but also ensuring that schools have proper sanitary facilities and are teaching basic hygiene. Teachers need training in new methods, and we need to ensure that children who rely on their school for at least one meal a day don’t go hungry during a crisis.
To achieve all of this, we must immediately help governments in lower-income countries to ensure that their education budgets are protected from any belt-tightening resulting from the pandemic’s economic fallout. Domestic resources account for the vast majority of education funding, but international support can play a bigger role to help insulate and expand existing resources. That will allow governments to start reshaping learning even before their countries’ economic rebounds are underway.
This year, the GPE is asking governments to pledge at least $5 billion toward transforming education for children in 90 countries and territories where schools are not only essential for learning but also critical to children’s welfare and security. Safe, inclusive, and quality education can be a springboard for recovery from the pandemic, and a buffer against the next crisis.
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