A Disaster for an Entire Generation?


A Disaster for an Entire Generation?

For many students, this year’s first day of school must have been an eagerly anticipated and somewhat trembling moment. Amid the pandemic, it has been difficult for students to focus and catch up on their studies while following stricter hygiene measures. Unfortunately, for some, the pandemic has put an end to their education. According to forecasts made by the United Nations in its policy brief on education during COVID-19 and beyond, some 23.8 million additional children and youth may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres says that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education ever. He says, “Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” As decades of progress in education are being reversed, there will be knock-on effects on child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality among others, exacerbating pre-existing disparities. Therefore, we must work harder than ever to make Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) a reality, ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

Progress on Implementing Quality Education

According to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, released by the United Nations in July this year, the world is not on track to meet the targets set out to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education by 2030, in spite of the progress in recent years. It is projected that over 200 million children will still be out of school, and 40% of young people will not complete upper secondary education. However, these are only projections prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has yet to consider the devastating disruptions that the global outbreak causes on education, including the effects of school closures on children’s learning, as well as the aggravated educational inequalities that arise as a result.

The prime goal of providing quality education is to keep children and youth in school, followed by ensuring that they complete their education. For the former, the report points out that the proportion of children and youth out of school has dropped from 26% in 2000 to 17% in 2018. While the figure was lowered, 258 million children and youth were still out of school, of which three quarters lived in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. In terms of ensuring children complete their education, the report estimated that the global primary school completion rate was significantly increased from 70% in 2000 to 85% in 2019. However, further efforts are needed as such rates for lower and upper secondary school were only at 73% and 49% respectively.

However, as COVID-19 broke out across the world, over 190 countries opted to implement nationwide school closures this year, leaving about 90% (1.57 billion) of all children and youth out of school. Although four out of five countries with school closures have since been able to provide distance learning solutions, such remedies remain out of reach for many children and youth living in remote communities, extreme poverty, fragile countries and refugee settlements who do not have access to the necessary resources. According to data in 2019, about 87% of households in Europe had Internet access at home, but this figure only amounted to 18% in Africa, where only 11% of all households owned a computer. Of course, owning a computer does not necessarily mean knowing how to use it or learn online through it. In about half of the 86 countries for which data are available, less than half of the population possessed basic computer skills as simple as copying a file. This shows that although authorities and schools may have offered remote learning, students may not have been able to make full use of it during the pandemic due to their families’ lack of resources and skills.

Schools in Bangladesh have been closed since March. Taking into account children’s psychosocial and education needs, World Vision has distributed books, puzzles and other materials to put a smile back on their faces.

Tanzania has been broadcasting lessons on television during the pandemic to help students continue to learn when schools were suspended. But in Halima’s experience, sometimes the programmes were cut short due to the solar panels not having enough power.

Aftershocks of the Pandemic

In some of the poor areas where World Vision works, we have found that even when authorities have arranged different modes of distance learning, such as online platforms, radio or television, some children are unable to take part as they do not have a device or a stable supply of electricity at home. These hindrances brought by the pandemic can affect whether children continue learning and finish their education in the future, and such effects are expected to gradually surface while promoting other sustainable development goals in the future.

For school children in many developing countries, the school is not only a place to learn, but also one to maintain good health and stay away from violence. The above report also highlights that in the first month of the pandemic, an estimated 379 million children were affected by the suspension of school meals and other nutrition services, directly threatening their health and resistance against diseases. Furthermore, as families are confined at home and worried about their livelihoods, adults often express their negative emotions on their children who may endure verbal and physical violence, and even sexual abuse. During the pandemic, calls to child and domestic violence hotlines around the world have increased by 20% to 200%.
The World Bank projects that the effects of the pandemic will see the number of people in extreme poverty increase by between 71 and 100 million. As families struggle financially, parents are likely to decide to withdraw their children from education to cut down on expenses. Due to the pandemic, children and youth will drop out of school, and some may even have to work as child labourers to help their families make ends meet, no longer setting foot in a classroom. Apart from that, in its Aftershocks – A Perfect Storm report, World Vision warns that in the next two years, as parents struggle to provide for their children, at least four million more girls may be married off and become victims of child marriage.

Hence, the impact of this education crisis spans much wider than the loss of knowledge. Having been stripped of their opportunities for personal development and breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty, children and youth are inevitably treading a different path. Furthermore, the crisis affects education and literacy rates, which in turn lowers the quality of life, hinders social development and the global progress of sustainable development.

The United Nations’ policy brief on education and COVID-19 states that, due to the crisis, the financing gap of global education can increase by up to one-third. If we were to stop the pandemic from further aggravating the education crisis and even escalating into a disaster of the entire generation, governments need to pledge to make long-term investments on education, while acting quicker and planning for more flexible, equal and inclusive education systems and modes of teaching, so that children and youth’s learning progress will not be easily hindered. More efforts should also be made towards assisting families in improving and establishing livelihoods, as well as providing adequate and timely education opportunities for their children. It is only when parents acquire such knowledge and help their children learn from home, that this generation of children and youth will truly be able to overcome the current education crisis and continue to thrive.

The New Normal Cannot Stop Their Pursuit of Dreams

When the pandemic caused schools in Uganda to suspend, classes were broadcasted via the radio. It was only after receiving a radio from World Vision that Isaac was able to continue his studies.

Isaac (South Sudan)
Career aspiration: President of South Sudan

Isaac, 14, fled from the conflict in his native South Sudan with his little brother in 2017. They have since arrived in the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda and now live with their foster mother and three foster siblings. Before COVID-19, the siblings would go to school every day at 7:30 am, but soon after schools closed and radio lessons were introduced, the family’s old radio stopped working.

Isaac and his siblings are among the 15 million children across Uganda that have been affected by the school closures since March. “Some of my friends live very far, I could only see them at school. I miss them and I miss learning new things. I want to study so hard and be the president of South Sudan in future. I want to bring back peace to our country,” he says.

Seeing the needs of children like Isaac who have not been able to learn for not having a functional radio, World Vision staff began distributing radios to the most vulnerable families in the settlement, beginning with children from child-headed households and foster families like Isaac’s.

Despite lacking the resources for distance learning, Nexi is determined to do her best no matter what mode of learning is used.

Nexi (The Philippines)
Career aspiration: Engineer

Like most children, 12-year-old Nexi still prefers face-to-face learning, sharing stories and doing assignments with her close friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected more than 20 million students across the Philippines. With the number of cases still on the rise, the department of education postponed in-person classes until a vaccine is available. Instead, distance or blended learning is being implemented, by means of the radio, television and online.

With just one mobile phone in her family and limited access to the Internet in her community, Nexi’s school provide printed modules to make distance learning possible. But for Nexi, no matter what the mode of learning is, she is determined to do her best. “I know there will be challenges when we start our classes, but I will still do my best. I want to study well so that I can be an engineer someday,” she shares.

Malak, a Syrian refugee, used to be very shy, but has since become very confident after completing two years of education with the support of World Vision.

Malak (Syria)
Career aspiration: Teacher

Malak, is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee living in Aarka, North of Lebanon. Malak was very shy when she first started going to school, but now, as a sixth grader who has been attending school for two years through World Vision’s support, she could not be happier. "I cannot wait to get back to school and see my teachers and play with my friends," she says. Because of COVID-19, Malak had to experience the transition from attending school with her friends to remote learning at home.

However, despite the switch to remote learning, Malak has always showed a positive attitude towards learning, according to her teacher Marwa. “It is such a motivation for me as a teacher to see the positive impact we can have on our students, especially Malak, who at first was shy and did not participate, and now she has started to be very outspoken,” she says. And Malak indeed is not afraid of sharing her thoughts. “Through the online sessions, our teachers are helping us learn English, Arabic and math,” explains Malak. “And one day, I want to become a teacher so I am able to do the same and help other girls.”

World Vision is implementing a non-formal education project in Lebanon, which has been modified due to the actual circumstances so that it could be conducted remotely with the caregivers. While activity sheets and psychosocial support kits are given to the 10- to 14-year-old children registered in our basic literacy and numeracy classes, their parents also receive weekly updates about COVID-19, along with daily tips from the teachers to help them engage in their children's learning process at home.

As a refugee himself, Santos voluntarily set up a mobile teaching programme to help refugee children from South Sudan continue to learn during the pandemic.

Santos (South Sudan)
Career aspiration: Primary school teacher

Santos is a refugee and a teacher from South Sudan. Having fled the conflict in his home country, he is currently living in a refugee settlement in Uganda.

Recalling why he became a teacher in the first place, Santos says, “After seeing how children struggled to learn, I enrolled at the primary teachers’ college and learned the skill to help my people.” When schools closed in March due to the pandemic, Santos once again saw how the children were struggling. Some had become idle at home, some were working with their parents, and a few girls from the village had even become pregnant. This pushed him to start up his mobile teaching programme, working voluntarily during the lockdown. Santos teaches in groups of 10 or fewer, and wherever he conducts his classes, he ensures that there is a hand-washing facility, where the children are required to wash their hands before and after the lesson. Besides teaching outdoors as much as possible to allow enough space for physical distancing, Santos also keeps a safe distance from the children while teaching.

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