Coronavirus: Alternatives to learning outside classrooms

By Iyabo Lawal

As most schools in many countries have shut down, what impact will the closure have on students and the nation’s education system? In this piece, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL examines how the Coronavirus pandemic will affect children and youth.

As of March 23, 2020, over 1.3 billion learners were out of school due to closures in response to COVID-19. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) monitoring, over 100 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over half of the world’s student’s population.

School closures impact not only students, teachers, and families, but have far-reaching economic and societal consequences. School closures in response to COVID-19 has exposed social and economic issues, including student debt, digital learning, food insecurity, and homelessness, as well as access to childcare, health care, housing, internet, and disability services.

On January 26, China instituted measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, which included extending the Spring Festival holiday to contain the outbreak. Universities and schools around the country closed.

On February 23, Iran’s Ministry of Health announced the closure of universities, higher education institutions and schools in several cities and provinces. On March 3, UNESCO released the first global numbers on school closures and affected students. It reported that 13 countries had enacted preventive measures including the temporary closure of schools and universities, impacting 290.5 million students around the world. In reaction, UNESCO called on countries to support affected students and families and facilitate large-scale inclusive distance learning programs.

On March 4, the Italian government ordered the full closure of all schools and universities nationwide as Italy reached 100 deaths. In doing so, Italy became one of 22 countries on three continents that had announced or implemented school closures.

On March 5, the majority of learners affected by COVID-19 emergency measures was located in China, with 233 million learners affected, followed by Japan at 16.5 million and Iran at 14.5 million.

By March 10, one in five students worldwide was “staying away from school due to the COVID-19 crisis” while another one in four was barred from higher education institutions. On March 13, governments in 49 countries announced or implemented school closures, including 39 countries that closed schools nationwide and 22 countries with localized school closures.

By March 16, this figure increased from 49 to 73 countries according to UNESCO. As of March 17, over 850 million children and youth – roughly half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide closures are in force in 102 countries and local shut-downs in 11 others. This represents more than a doubling in the number of learners prevented from attending educational institutions, with further increases expected.

By March 20, over 70 per cent of the world’s learners were impacted by closures, with 124 country-wide school closures. On March 23, all Nigerian schools were found to have been closed down by the Nigerian government.

It takes a village to educate a child, and even more so in times of distance learning when schooling goes virtual. A whole community approach and stronger partnerships are needed to make distance learning inclusive: this was one of the key takeaways from UNESCO’s first webinar on the educational response to Covid-19, which drew government officials, practitioners and experts from over 50 countries on 20 March 2020.

The scale and speed of the school and university closures represent an unprecedented challenge for the education sector. Countries around the world are racing to fill the void with distance learning solutions but the uncertain duration of the closures adds further complication to their efforts. These range from hi-tech alternatives like real-time video classes conducted remotely to lower-tech options such as educational programming on radio and television as Lagos State planned to do.

As an immediate response to massive school closures, UNESCO has established a COVID-19 task force to provide advice and technical assistance to governments working to provide education to students out of school. The organization is also holding regular virtual meetings with education ministers from all over the world to share experiences and assess priority needs.

It is not yet known if Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, has any capacity to provide alternative learning opportunities.UNESCO is also launching a Global COVID-19 Education Coalition that brings together multilateral partners and the private sector, including Microsoft and the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), to help countries deploy remote learning systems so as to minimize educational disruptions and maintain social contact with learners.

“The current situation imposes immense challenges for countries to be able to provide uninterrupted learning for all children and youth in an equitable manner. We are stepping up on our global response by creating a coalition to ensure a fast and coordinated response. Beyond meeting immediate needs, this effort is an opportunity to rethink education, scale-up distance learning and make education systems more resilient, open and innovative,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

“Difficulties rise exponentially when school closures are prolonged,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education. “Schools, however imperfectly, play an equalizing role in society and when they close, inequalities become far greater.”

UNESCO will further host regular webinars and virtual meetings to allow country representatives opportunities to share information on the effectiveness of approaches used in different contexts, building on the success of its ministerial videoconference of 10 March that brought together 73 countries.

The adverse impacts of school closures are difficult to overstate and many of them extend beyond the education sector.One is interrupted learning: The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities outside school. Another is nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted school meals for healthy nutrition. When schools close, nutrition is compromised.

Then, there is the issue of protection: Schools provide safety for many children and youth and when they close, young people are more vulnerable and at risk. Parents unprepared for distance and home-schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the children’s learning at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.

Another challenge is unequal access to digital learning portals: Lack of access to technology or good internet connectivity is an obstacle to continued learning, especially for students from disadvantaged families. The UNESCO also mentioned gaps in childcare, noting that in the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased peer pressure and substance abuse.

Another issue highlighted is the high economic costs. Working parents are more likely to miss work to take care of their children when schools close. This results in wage loss and decreased productivity. In addition, there is a rise in dropout rates. It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen, especially after protracted closures.

The UN agency also stated that schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development.On March 20, the National Universities Commission, Nigeria’s regulator of university education, ordered a shutdown of all institutions within its jurisdiction for a period of one month in response to the outbreak of coronavirus. Consequently, all schools -nursery, primary, secondary and higher institutions have all closed in Nigeria.

The number of children, youth and adults not attending schools or universities because of COVID-19 is soaring. Governments all around the world have closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the global pandemic.

According to UNESCO monitoring, over 130 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over 80 per cent of the world’s student population. Several other countries have implemented localized school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

In China, schools have started opening, but the majority remain closed. While in Finland, pre-primary education and grades 1–3 will continue for the children of parents working in sectors critical to the functioning of society, as well as for children with special needs from pre-primary to upper secondary education. Early Childhood Education and Care will be provided for all children, whose parents are unable to arrange their care at home. In other levels of education, contact teaching can continue, if considered necessary for the completion of studies.

In Honduras, while all schools are closed, universities have the choice to remain open or not. In Iceland, primary schools can remain open if classes of under 20 children can be assured. But in Japan, universities are currently on school spring break, and hence closures not related to the coronavirus.

According to the World Economic Forum, the coronavirus pandemic has changed how millions around the globe are educated, calling for new solutions for education which could bring much-needed innovation.

However, given the digital divide, new shifts in education approaches could widen equality gaps. In a matter of weeks, coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed how students are educated around the world. Those changes, WEF noted, has provided a glimpse at how education could change for the better – and the worse – in the long term.

“Although it is too early to judge how reactions to COVID-19 will affect education systems around the world, there are signs suggesting that it could have a lasting impact on the trajectory of learning innovation and digitization,” said WEF.

The forum, then went further to talk about three trends that could hint at future transformations.One is innovation. According to the forum, the slow pace of change in academic institutions globally is lamentable, with centuries-old, lecture-based approaches to teaching, entrenched institutional biases, and outmoded classrooms. However, COVID-19 has become a catalyst for educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time.

To help slow the virus’ spread, students in Hong Kong started to learning at home, in February, via interactive apps. In China, 120 million Chinese got access to learning material through live television broadcasts.

Other simpler – yet no less creative – solutions were implemented around the globe. In one Nigerian school, standard asynchronous online learning tools (such as reading material via Google Classroom), were augmented with synchronous face-to-face video instruction, to help preempt school closures.

Similarly, students at one school in Lebanon began leveraging online learning, even for subjects such as physical education. Students shot and sent over their own videos of athletic training and sports to their teachers as “homework”, pushing students to learn new digital skills.

With 5G technology becoming more prevalent in countries such as China, the US and Japan, WEF stated, “We will see learners and solution providers truly embracing the ‘learning anywhere, anytime’ concept of digital education in a range of formats.

“Traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented with new learning modalities – from live broadcasts to ‘educational influencers’ to virtual reality experiences. Learning could become a habit that is integrated into daily routines – a true lifestyle.”

In addition, public-private educational partnerships could grow in importance. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic on the international scene, there have been learning consortiums and coalitions taking shape, with diverse stakeholders – including governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom network operators – coming together to utilize digital platforms as a temporary solution to the crisis.

No government will take the decision to shut down its schools lightly. But when considering school closure as a strategy to tackle disease outbreaks, the evidence suggests that they should carefully assess how and when to close schools and to weigh any reduction in disease transmission against negative social and economic effects. Perhaps even more important, particularly in developing countries, is to consider how to tackle these adverse consequences—during and after school closure—for disadvantaged children and especially girls, and to implement measures to ensure children return to school once they reopen.

The United Nations has warned of the unparalleled scale and speed of the educational disruption being caused by coronavirus. Currently, school closures in over a dozen countries due to the COVID-19 outbreak have disrupted the education of at least 290.5 million students worldwide, according to UNESCO.

In light of the education crisis occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, UNESCO shared 10 recommendations that can benefit Nigeria and other nations. Decide on the use of high-technology and low-technology solutions based on the reliability of local power supplies, internet connectivity, and digital skills of teachers and students. This could range through integrated digital learning platforms, video lessons, MOOCs, to broadcasting through radios and TVs.

Ensure inclusion of the distance learning programmes: Implement measures to ensure that students including those with disabilities or from low-income backgrounds have access to distance learning programmes, if only a limited number of them have access to digital devices. Consider temporarily decentralizing such d evices from computer labs to families and support them with internet connectivity.

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