Exactly a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic brought learning to a screeching halt worldwide, creating the most severe global education disruption in history. At the peak of the crisis, UNESCO data showed that over 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries were out of school. Over 100 million teachers and school personnel were impacted by the sudden closures of learning institutions. Today, half of the world’s student population (more than 800 million learners) is still affected by full or partial school closures. In 29 countries, schools remain fully closed.
The pandemic has exposed and deepened pre-existing education inequalities that were never adequately addressed. As always, it has impacted vulnerable and marginalized learners the hardest. The economic downturn of the crisis is now adding pressure on national education budgets and aid at a time when increased funding is needed for education recovery. Despite critical additional funding needs, two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have cut their public education budgets since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent joint report by the World Bank and UNESCO.
In October last year, UNESCO convened a Global Education Meeting where world leaders and partners expressed their commitments to protect education financing and safeguard learning from the devastating impact of the pandemic.
From the onset of the crisis, UNESCO and its more than 160 partners through the Global Education Coalition have been mobilized around three central themes - connectivity, gender and teachers - to ensure that learning never stops during this unprecedented crisis.
From keeping schools open to bridging the digital divide – from addressing dropouts and learning losses to calling for more education funding - UNESCO has been leading the way through intensive partnerships and innovations during the past year to prevent a “generational catastrophe” and build more resilient and inclusive education systems.
Keeping schools open and supporting teachers
Protecting the physical and mental health of students, teachers and school personnel is essential. School closures have brought a major disruption in the lives of children and youth, affecting their socio-emotional development and well-being, as well as their social life and relationships. As two-thirds of the world’s student population is still affected by full or partial school closures, the pandemic is taking a rising toll on their mental health.
To enable a safe return to school, the world’s 100 million teachers and educators must be given priority in vaccination campaigns. The pandemic directly affected 63 million primary and secondary teachers. During school closures, they were required to conduct distance teaching with no time to prepare and often with limited guidance and resources. Teachers had to modify curricula and adapt lesson plans to carry on with instruction using high, low and no-tech solutions. They need continued training on remote teaching, available technologies and alternative flexible pedagogies for online, blended and offline learning during future school closures.
School dropout and learning loss
Lost learning is no longer being counted in days and weeks, but in months. Two-thirds of an academic year has been lost on average worldwide due to full or partial closures. The longer schools stay closed, the higher the risk of children and youth losing out on their future. 24 million children and youth are at risk of dropping out. A new UNESCO study shows that over 100 million children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading due to the impact of school closures. Teachers require training and support on adjusting curricula and assessment methods to measure and mitigate learning losses and prevent vulnerable students from dropping out.
School closures also threaten decades of progress made towards gender equality, placing many girls at heightened exposure to gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, adolescent pregnancy and forced marriage. The closures also cut access to vital services for protection, nutrition, health and well-being. UNESCO and partners launched a campaign last year to ensure that every girl is able to learn while schools are closed and return to the classroom when schools safely reopen.
The immediate preoccupations to address include learning loss, how to assess it and offer remedial action. More must be done to counter the exacerbation of existing learning gaps and inequalities, the emergence of new ones, and the risk of increased dropout. The joint Framework for reopening schools by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and World Food Programme (WFP) serves as an important reference on this issue.
Digital transformation and the future of education
Approximately half of the world’s population (some 3.6 billion people) still lack an internet connection. This means that at least 463 million or nearly one-third of students around the globe cannot access remote learning, mainly due to a lack of online learning policies or lack of equipment needed to connect from home. Most students do not have the appropriate connectivity, device and digital skills required to find and use educational content dependent on technology.
According to UN estimates, nearly 500 million students from pre-primary to upper-secondary school did not have any access to any remote learning—three quarters of those lived in the poorest households or rural areas. This enormous digital divide shows how connectivity has become a key factor to guarantee the right to education. Digital skills and learning must be incorporated into education systems in order address the injustice of the digital divide. This crucial issue is among many currently being debated through UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative, a global conversation to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. The report is due to come out in November 2021.
UNESCO will convene a high-level ministerial event on 29 March to take stock of lessons learnt, the greatest risks facing education today and strategies to leave no learner behind. It will show how the Global Education Coalition has mobilized partners to support learners, teachers and policy-makers with new tools and knowledge.