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Pandemic leaves 1.4bn learners worldwide behind on education

Decisions by governments around the world to temporarily close schools last year to prevent the spread of Covid-19 affected 1.4-billion learners in 190 countries.

In some countries, learning had slowed and regressed for children who in many cases were behind in basic literacy and numeracy prior to the pandemic. The consequences of this could manifest in an entire generation.  

This was revealed by a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled: “Years Don’t Wait for Them” Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, released on Monday. 

The organisation interviewed 470 people between April 2020 and April 2021 for the report, including learners, parents and teachers. Interviewees were from 60 countries that include South Africa, Kenya, the US, China and Greece. 

“As of May 2021, schools in 26 countries were closed countrywide, and schools were only partially open — open either just in some locations or only for some grade levels — in 55 countries, with ongoing uncertainty in many places affected by high infection rates caused in part by new Covid-19 variants. Despite more than a year’s worth of disruptions, many education systems were still applying haphazard distance learning,” the report reads. 

In South Africa schools were closed in March 2020 and the last group of learners only went back to class in August

The report says that when schools were closed there were no structured response plans in place to guide governments, schools and teachers on how teaching and learning would continue to take place. Nor were there any plans to assist learners and parents to adjust to the new way of teaching and learning. 

In some countries, once schools were closed, learners did not receive any form of education, and while other countries swiftly moved to distance learning it was not the case for places such as Thailand and Cambodia where learners had to wait for three and four months, respectively, before they could start distance learning. 

HRW states in the report that the challenges of learners already facing discrimination and exclusion from education were exercebated during the school closures in all the countries where the organisation conducted its research. 

For example, the organisation refers to a survey done by the Nations Children’s Emergency Fund in September 2020 which found that governments had failed to adopt measures to facilitate learning for children with disabilities. 

“A mother in Cape Town, South Africa, said her son has attention deficit and does not like to take medication because it makes him depressed. ‘He is an auditory learner, and his school is not doing Zoom sessions…. They send the work and then it’s up to the child to do the work. That’s very, very hard because sitting down and focusing is very difficult for him… he has to have a snack. And then he has to do this. And then he has to walk the dog, and then he has to go for a run.’,” quotes the report. 

It adds that learners with disabilities also lost out on critical therapy services that they acquired at school during the closures. 

Some parents lost their jobs during the pandemic and were unable to pay for the internet or buy their children devices to study online, according to the report. 

And because of lack of schooling, other children decided to find work or engaged in child labour. The report warns that once children start working they are unlikely to return to school if the schools and local authorities do not work with the families to make sure the children get back to class. 

Working children interviewed for the report said they doubt they would return to school as they enjoyed having their own money. 

Others, like 14-year-old boys from Ghana, told HRW in March that while their schools had reopened they still needed to make money to buy school books and uniforms before they could return. 

Some children, such as those in low-income fishing communities in Lagos, Nigeria, were forced to work because their schools did not provide any form of learning while they were closed, and they helped out their families by hawking fish. 

In October, the Mail & Guardian reported that learners from Onkgopotse Tiro comprehensive school in North West who were yet to return to school spoke of dropping out and going to find work on the farms. The farm school did not have a Covid-19 compliant hostel, which meant that the learners could not go back. In the end, the learners found spaces in neighbouring schools. 

The HRW report also found that lack of electricity, overcrowded households, having to do house chores (particularly for girls), no internet access, lack of access to devices and data costs were some of the reasons why some learners were unable to access education when schools were closed. 

Even though some countries used radio and television to provide learning to some children this did not help as other households did not have these, or the learners lived in places too remote for a signal. 

“Governments relied heavily on providing these programmes, but their roll-out did not ensure children accessed those learning programmes on an equal basis. ‘I hear there were lessons being offered on Warsan Radio,’ said 16-year-old Taisha S. in Garissa, Kenya. ‘But I never tuned in because we do not have [a] radio’,” quotes the report. 

It says the consequences of school closure has meant that for some learners their learning slowed and regressed. It further says this will add to an already existing problem where millions of children were not efficient in basic literacy and numeracy at the right age and grade prior the pandemic. 

“The United Nations has stated the ‘learning crisis could turn into a generational catastrophe,’ as a result of school closures,” the report says.

In January the M&G reported that a research report by the department of basic education said that it was likely to take up to eight years to recover the learning losses resulting from school closures because of the pandemic.

Again in January, the M&G reported that some parents believed that their children were not ready to move to the next grade because of the disruption in the schooling system, while teachers also said that the pandemic was likely to produce learners who cannot read or write. 

The HRW report also revealed that the World Food Programme estimated that last year in April, when many schools were closed globally, 369-million learners were missing out on school meals, and that in January, 264-million children were missing out. 

“Fourteen-year old Patience K., in Ghana, said her parents’ fishing business lost customers during the lockdown, and that once schools shut down, she and her eight siblings no longer had access to free school meals. She said she felt she had no choice but to go to work. ‘If I don’t do it, life will be tough for all of us.’”

In July, advocacy group Equal Education, took the department to court to compel it to provide the National School Nutrition Programme to all learners — even those who had yet to return to school.  More than 9.6-million learners benefit from the school nutrition programme. The court ruled in Equal Education’s favour. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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