By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 7 2020 (IPS)
Countries with low human development are facing the brunt of school lockdowns, with more than 85 percent of their students effectively out of school by the second quarter of 2020, according to a United Nations policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on education.
At the launch, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, said the pandemic “has led to the largest disruption of education ever”.
According to the brief, school closures resulting from the pandemic have affected 1.6 billion learners across more than 190 countries.
In the United Kingdom, there’s a difference in what’s affecting students and what’s affecting parents and teachers., according to professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars, who teaches social mobility at the University of Exeter. With students now attending schools remotely, she said, parents, teachers and guardians are prioritising issues such as safety, well-being and nutrition — not educational achievements. However, the students are “very concerned about their attainment and progression and how this affects their future prospects”.
Mountford-Zimdars spoke with IPS following the release of the U.N. policy brief. In May, her office at the university’s Joint Director of the Centre for Social Mobility published results of a survey about how school lockdowns are affecting parents and students across the United Kingdom.
“Students reported a sense of ‘loss of power’ with regards to shaping their next steps as the framework of attainment and opportunities for further education,” Mountford-Zimdars told IPS on Tuesday.
According to the brief, “some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone”.
The pandemic is worsening already-existing problems in the field, hampering learning for those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons.
‘Loss of power’
“In the most fragile education systems, this interruption of the school year will have a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable pupils, those for whom the conditions for ensuring continuity of learning at home are limited,” the brief read.
It pointed out that the Sahel region is especially susceptible to some of the effects as the lockdown came when many schools in the region were already shut down due to a range of issues such as security, strikes, climate concerns.
According to the report, 47 percent of the world’s 258 million out-of-school children (30 percent due to conflict and emergency) lived in sub-Saharan Africa before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, with children now remaining at home full time may mean challenges for the parents, and could further “complicate the economic situation of parents, who must find solutions to provide care or compensate for the loss of school meals”.
This is present in Mountford-Zimdars’ findings as well. She told IPS that their research shows that the parents perceive the current situation as “crisis schooling” and not as “home education” or remote learning.
There are, however, some silver linings. When faced with the pandemic and lockdown, educational institutions responded with “remarkable innovation” to address the gap, the brief stated. It has also given educators an opportunity to reflect on how education systems going forward can be “more flexible, equitable, and inclusive.”
Mountford-Zimdars said their survey in particular showed that students with special education needs are “thriving more in the forced home-schooling than they did in mainstream schools.”
“There are lessons to be learnt of the factors that make home-education a better choice for some children – including the opportunity to tailor material to individual interests and needs, taking breaks and having fun together as a family,” she said.
Acknowledging that often school is a safe space for many children, she added, “We also need to recognise that there are divergent experiences of the school closure and there are also children and families who experience this as an opportunity to rethink how and why they are doing schooling the way they are.”
The U.N. brief further discussed measures to take into account steps going forward — whether it’s for their return to the classrooms or to improve digital teaching. The brief recommends solutions designed around the issues of equal connectivity for children as well as making up for their lost lessons.
Mountford-Zimdars added to this list two important elements: a safe space for the students to share their at-home experience, and reflections on how they processed the pandemic.
“It is important to create safe spaces for young people to talk about their experiences of being at home education,” she said, adding that for many students it hasn’t been a positive experience, owing to family circumstances, lack of access to nutrition, economic, social or cultural resources and technology.
“Now is an opportunity to provide spaces for talking through these experiences and, if necessary, offer further specialist support,” she added. “It would be immensely beneficial for mental health support to be available, widely advertised, and open through self-referral by young people themselves as well as those working with them in schools.”
Furthermore, she said, parents and teachers should guide students to reflect on positive lessons from the school closures.
“I would strongly recommend that instead of focusing solely on the lost learning of particular curricula, that the school reopening needs to be accompanied by a period of reflection. What have students learnt? How is this helpful for the future?” she added.
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