Governments should act swiftly to redress the harm caused to children’s education in the wake of the unprecedented disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week. Human Rights Watch accompanied its report with an interactive feature exploring common barriers to education exacerbated during the pandemic.
The 125-page report, “‘Years Don’t Wait for Them’: Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic,” documents how Covid-related school closures affected children unequally, as not all children had the opportunities, tools, or access needed to keep on learning during the pandemic. The heavy reliance on online learning exacerbated the existing unequal distribution of support for education, Human Rights Watch found. Many governments did not have the policies, resources, or infrastructure to roll out online learning in a way that ensured that all children could participate on an equal basis.
“With millions of children deprived of education during the pandemic, now is the time to strengthen protection of the right to education by rebuilding better and more equitable and robust education systems,” said Elin Martinez, senior education researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The aim shouldn’t be just to return to how things were before the pandemic, but to fix the flaws in systems that have long prevented schools from being open and welcoming to all children.”
“Their teacher called me to tell me to buy a big phone [smartphone] for online teaching,” said a mother of seven in Lagos, Nigeria who lost her income when the university where she cleaned shut down due to the pandemic. “I don’t have money to feed my family and I am struggling to make ends meet. How can I afford a phone and internet?”
As of May 2021, schools in 26 countries were closed country-wide, and schools were only partially open – either just in some locations or only for some grade levels – in 55 countries. An estimated 90 percent of the world’s school-aged children have had their education disrupted by the pandemic, according to UNESCO.
For millions of students, school closures will not be a temporary interference with their education, but the abrupt end of it, Human Rights Watch said. Children have begun working, married, become parents, grown disillusioned with education, concluded they cannot catch up, or aged-out of free or compulsory education as guaranteed under their country’s laws.
Even for the students who have returned, or who will return, to their classrooms, the evidence suggests that for years to come they will continue to feel the consequences of lost learning during the pandemic.
The damage to many children’s education is built on pre-existing issues: one in five children were out of school even before Covid-19 began to spread, according to UN data. Covid-induced school closures tended to particularly harm students from groups facing discrimination and exclusion from education even before the pandemic.
They include children living in or near poverty; children with disabilities; ethnic and racial minorities in a country; girls in countries with gender inequalities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children; children in rural areas or areas affected by armed conflict; and displaced, refugee, migrant, and asylum-seeking children.
“Governments had years of solid evidence showing them exactly which groups of children were most likely to suffer educationally during school closures, and yet these children faced some of the greatest barriers to continuing their studies,” Martinez said. “Just reopening schools will not undo the damage, nor even ensure that all children will return to school.”
Schools entered the pandemic ill-prepared to deliver remote education to all students equally, Human Rights Watch found. This was due to governments’ long-term failure to remedy discrimination and inequalities in their education systems, or to ensure basic government services such as affordable, reliable electricity in homes, or facilitate affordable internet access.
Children from low-income families were more likely to be excluded from online learning because they could not afford sufficient internet or devices. Historically under-resourced schools with students who already faced greater obstacles to learning particularly struggled to reach their students across digital divides. Education systems often failed to provide digital literacy training for students and teachers to ensure they can use these technologies safely and confidently.
Education should be at the core of all governments’ recovery plans, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should both address the impact of the pandemic on children’s education and the pre-existing problems. In light of profound financial pressures on national economies from the pandemic, governments should protect and prioritize funding for public education.
“Children’s education was forfeited in an effort to protect everyone’s lives from the coronavirus,” Martinez said. “To compensate for children’s sacrifice, governments should finally rise to the challenge and urgently make education free and available for every child around the world.”
Decades of slow but steady progress in educating more children around the world abruptly ended in 2020. By April, an unprecedented 1.4 billion students were shut out of their pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools in more than 190 countries, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to UNESCO. Schools in some countries later re-opened, or opened for some students, while elsewhere there has been no return to in-person schooling since. During school closures, in most countries, education moved online or was delivered otherwise remotely, but with vast variations in success and quality. Issues including internet access, connectivity, accessibility, material preparedness, teacher training and home situations, factored heavily in the feasibility of remote learning.
Story source: Human Rights Watch