COVID-19: Learning cities on the front line


by David Atchoarena, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

Everywhere in the world, cities are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, from managing overstretched health and social services to coping with the closure of learning institutions.

With UNESCO estimating that more than 1.5 billion learners – over 90% of the world student population - are confined to their homes, providing alternative learning solutions has become the top priority for every ministry of education. However, in today’s increasingly decentralized systems, it is at local level that the impact of this new reality plays out. With more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, cities have an essential role to play in ensuring that all learners continue to enjoy full access, albeit at a distance, to education provision, especially in the most deprived areas and homes.

As well as avoiding any disruption in learning, cities are well placed to transform not only schools, but also the entire lifelong learning system into a massive preventive resource. Lifelong learning institutions are called on to promote the behaviours, gestures and habits that can prevent contamination. Within a few weeks, prioritizing health education for all citizens, and not only children, has become a global priority.

The local level and, in its core, cities have been key actors in transforming lifelong learning into reality by bringing together the expertise, experience, funding and authority of a wide range of stakeholders from the public sector, civil society and business. Today, supporting, implementing and complementing government responses, they are connecting multiple actors to develop a coordinated response to the crisis, including lifelong learning as a goal and as a means.

Many of the 173 members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) are facing enormous challenges because of COVID-19. UNESCO learning cities have shown strong commitment to lifelong learning; in response to the current crisis, they are intensifying their efforts in an impressively innovative manner.

For many, online and distance learning were not on the agenda some weeks ago, yet local governments are now setting up virtual classrooms and collaboration platforms at incredible speed. Which learning platforms to use, how to aid teachers in implementing online learning, how to reach those with little or no internet access at home and how to monitor and assess learning outcomes are central questions being addressed by many learning cities.

In the UNESCO learning city of Wuhan, in China, the first epicenter of COVID-19, more than a million primary and secondary students have participated in ‘air classes’ since February. In addition to retaining regular subjects, school curricula have been expanded to address virus-related topics. The UNESCO learning city of Turin in Italy has worked hard to assist its schools with the seismic shift from a face-to-face learning tradition to conducting all learning activities online. This was not without problems; technical issues had to be solved and teachers trained, but even schools with no prior experience were able to find solutions. However, distance and online courses can produce new gaps, for example for children benefiting from school feeding programmes. Creating alternative ways to continue to meet such basic needs is also one of the challenges that cities have to address. This, for instance, is one of the priorities identified by the UNESCO learning city of São Paolo in Brazil as part of its coping strategy.

While health systems are experiencing increasing challenges in absorbing the impact of the disease, flattening the curve of virus expansion is critical to reduce the pressure on hospitals. Municipal governments are engaging citizens via public information campaigns to provide education for healthcare, because radical change in the behaviour of every individual is urgently needed. Every person, in every city, needs to do their part. Education is essential to achieve this goal. Hence, investing in lifelong learning interventions is key in these times of crisis.

The UNESCO learning city of Shanghai in China has, for example, taught citizens through various channels how and where to buy masks for protection and how to get food delivered, as well as providing guidance for other day-to-day tasks to cope with the outbreak. Teachers have been asked to communicate with parents and students and aid the process of teaching citizens how to stay healthy and care for others. The UNESCO learning city of Kashan in Iran has launched television programmes to teach people how to prevent the virus from spreading further, starting with good hygiene at home. This idea is captured by the Kashan city slogan ‘Every Home – A Health Base’.

This articulation between education and health illustrates the importance of the intersectoral linkages that are at the heart of lifelong learning and recognizes that civil society and the private sector have an important role to play, alongside municipal governments, in providing learning opportunities at local level.

In the Republic of Korea, the UNESCO learning city of Osan is mobilizing civil society to strengthen communities against the virus: a vast network of volunteers has followed official guidelines to produce thousands of protective masks, which have been distributed among vulnerable groups. In Italy, Torino City Love, a project under the umbrella of Torino City Lab and created in collaboration with local companies, supports creative solutions to problems faced by people and companies during this crisis. It offers the entire city for free as a location for testing innovative solutions, providing a real place, infrastructure, network and know-how to experiment and scale-up innovation.

Monitoring the impact of the crisis on education at local level, documenting lifelong learning city policy responses, sharing experiences and good practices –are some of the functions that the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) is performing to build resilience. The weekly COVID-19 GNLC webinars offer a platform for providing information and building solidarity. Though no individual city has all the answers to the challenges we face, by combining our experiences and knowledge we can jointly work towards finding them. When lifelong learning was adopted as the overarching concept framing the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on education, the vision was not only educational but also developmental, carrying impact across other SDGs. Today, confronted with the COVID-19 crisis, cities are implementing a similar two-tier approach and, across the world, the GNLC members are demonstrating how learning cities can become resilient cities.

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