By Ammarah Rehman, UNA-NCA Research Assistant and Shayna Vayser, Managing Director of Advocacy & Policy Strategy
The new school year is approaching, and institutions around the world face the challenge of implementing safe plans to enroll students. COVID-19 has only amplified the global education crisis.
According to Amina J. Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group, more than 260 million children and adolescents were out of school and more than 617 million students were not performing at the minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, 1.5 billion students face the risk of not returning to school, especially students in marginalized communities. Race, gender, socio-economic class, ability and access to technology will all serve as barriers for some students this upcoming fall. Here are three of the primary barriers students may face this fall- and possible interventions:
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, 132 million girls worldwide were not enrolled in school. The conditions that have shaped this gender disparity will influence the accessibility of re-enrollment for many girls. In particular, the exacerbated economic burden produced by the pandemic will force many households to make a choice between which child will continue their schooling. Financial constraints prompt sons to be frequently chosen over daughters to receive an education, a pattern that will likely increase in light of COVID-19. The heightened risk of domestic violence and child marriages in light of stay-at-home orders encapsulate the threat posted of extended school closures- governments need to create gender inclusive policies to ensure girls are still attending schools.
The Digital Divide
Many children around the world have access to technology or have access to Wifi- in the United States alone, more than 9 million children lack internet access for online learning. The necessary shift to an online platform is resulting in many students not being able to attend classes or be able to turn in their assignments online. Teachers are also finding it difficult to transition from in-person classrooms and adapting lesson plans to the new format. Some teachers are not properly trained in creating online teaching materials that ensure equitable accessibility and inclusivity.
The lack of access to technology poses an ideal time for school districts and governments to invest in computers, laptops and access to Wifi for their students. Unique challenges serve as opportunities for innovation- countries are relying on local radio systems and television in order to reach students without access to Wifi, while teachers around the world are delivering assignments to students’ homes.
Some students rely on schools to be open in order to receive a meal. Nearly 22 million students across the United States rely on reduced-price or free school lunches. Across the US, cities have been forced to close food pantries in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The increased risk of food insecurity has prompted a wave of mutual aid efforts, with groups volunteering to deliver food from local pantries to people’s home for free. However, the holistic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on food insecurity remains to be determined. Countries are mounting to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on global agriculture businesses and food production, but accessibility remains a challenge.
Food insecurity is a tremendous barrier for many students, as it impacts school readiness and cognitive development. Within the US, federal programs that currently seek to alleviate this disparity must be expanded and adapted to the current novel threat of COVID-19 and school closures.
Universal human rights and dignity are contingent upon access to a quality education, regardless of gender, class, race, or religion. Governments and school districts must acknowledge the many different challenges that both students and teachers are facing during this pandemic. Through increased strategic collaboration and funding allocations, global and local institutions can ensure that no students are left behind.