Deepest education crisis in 100 years
SCHOOLS closed last year in more than 180 countries around the world. Some only closed for a few weeks, but in many places, they still haven’t reopened.
Because of the hundreds of millions of schoolchildren who are still unable to return to the classroom, the United Nations has warned of a “global education emergency. ” Experts see it as the deepest education crisis of the last 100 years.
More than 24 million in countries like Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa and many more are expected never return, putting the future of an entire generation at stake.
Life paths are changing direction because home schooling in city quarters with inadequate internet access is little more than an illusion.
Children are unable to continue their schooling because there is no money for private tutors – or perhaps not even a desk or a room where the children can concentrate on their work.
Doors are closing forever because parents have lost their jobs during the crisis and the children must now contribute to the family’s survival.
According to Marian Blasberg, Laura Höflinger, Katrin Kuntz und Fritz Schaap (Schoolchildren Around the World Face a Steep Uphill Battle—published in Spiegel International on March 2, 2021) the consequences are vast.
“The United Nations believes that more than 24 million children will never again return to school”.
Quoting the former Peruvian Education Minister Jaime Saavedra, who now leads the World Bank’s Education Global Practice programme the authors say what the world is experiencing is an historical double-shock.
“Never has the economy suffered so much. Never have schools been closed for this long.”
And quoting an Oxfam report titled “The Inequality Virus,” the authors further held that the coronavirus has torpedoed efforts to reduce educational disparities.
Because development aid budgets have been cut and money has been flowing from the education sector into health care around the world, the disparities are now growing rather than shrinking.
Whereas children in Europe have missed 10 weeks of schooling on average, the total is as much as 200 days in large parts of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia
. The development of many countries could stagnate if children are unable to reach their potential.
The World Bank has calculated that today’s schoolchildren will lose out on $10 trillion in future earnings – a total that is growing with each day that schools remain closed.
Several countries are essentially starting over again, says Shelby Carvalho, who works for the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development and is researching the consequences the pandemic has had for education.
There is a risk of progress being reversed in the school system, she explains.
“Schools are in crisis management mode, trying to just do what they can to make sure that students actually come back to school,” she says.
Carvalho believes that many countries are now paying the price for never really taking “pre-existing conditions” within their educations systems seriously enough.
Even before the pandemic, economic crises around the world had resulted in shrinking education budgets.
Globally, teachers are poorly paid or have been laid off and there has been, she adds, a shortage of investment in technological infrastructure for schools, a failure that the pandemic has exposed, despite hurriedly developed radio or TV learning programs.
On top of that, many countries have entrusted the education of their citizens to private school operators.
Now that many families are facing a decision between spending their money on food or education, such tuition-financed models are proving inadequate.
In India, where many parents send their children to private schools, many of which only cost a few Indian rupees per month, an entire system is at risk of collapsing.
It is possible that public schools, which are already overcrowded, will be further stretched, believes education expert Bikkrama Daulet Singh, who works for the Indian education NGO Central Square Foundation.
Around half of all 10-year-olds in the country, Singh says, already belonged to the “learning poor” before the pandemic, a label that applies to children who have a hard time reading with comprehension.
There are now studies indicating that this number has risen substantially as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. Children who were able to read a year ago are now having difficulties.
The problem, Singh says, is that these children are destined to fall even further behind.
Once they reach a certain age, he says, learning is primarily based on reading comprehension, making it extremely difficult for those who cannot do so to catch up. It is just a matter of time before they drop out of the system entirely.
The dire consequences of the school closures affect 60 percent of all schoolchildren in developing countries.
Already, an additional 150 million children have fallen back into poverty as a result of the pandemic, and for many of them, schools aren’t just places where they learn something.
They are places to socialize and where they develop as citizens.
They are safe there from domestic violence and some even get medical care at school.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, 39 billion school meals have been missed, according to the UN.
“School closure is a multi-dimensional loss,” says World Bank researcher Saavedra. After the summer break, say researchers, children have usually forgotten around 20 percent of what they learned before.
But how much will they forget after a break of six months or a year? Jaime Saavedra of the World Bank says that every single day is vital.
To alleviate the effects of the pandemic, it is up to the countries, he says, and they have to be flexible.
Saavedra proposes using younger teachers, teaching in shifts and introducing review classes for those who have fallen behind.
“It’s not going to be perfect,” says Saveedra. “But it is important that societies develop a sense of urgency.
Children need to go back to learning as soon as possible, despite all the other concerns.” Priorities must be reconsidered.
Instead of opening up shopping malls, concert halls or football stadiums, developing and emerging countries should focus more on the youngest members of their societies.
Even if the virus itself doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on them, they are the biggest victims of this pandemic.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.