Education and Solidarity Network

FROM THE HEALTH CRISIS TO THE EDUCATION CRISIS: STUDENTS AND EDUCATION STAFF FACED WITH COVID-19

Hawa Fatty
April 30, 2020

1.5 billion students deprived of learning places. 63 million educators affected in the practice of their profession. Globally, the health crisis has also become an educational crisis. What are the issues brought to light by the closure of education spaces? How is the international education community responding to the crisis?

1.5 billion students deprived of learning places. 63 million educators affected in the practice of their profession. Globally, the health crisis has also become an educational crisis. What are the issues brought to light by the closure of education spaces? How is the international education community responding to the crisis?

Nutritional needs, loss of income: the COVID crisis exacerbates inequality

While the disruption caused by the closure of educational facilities affects all populations around the world, the consequences are particularly severe for learners from economically underprivileged communities. For millions of them, school is the only place that guarantees access to essential social services, such as meals and first aid. A vulnerability increased by the fact that for many parents, the lockdown measures have resulted in the loss of their job and the incapacity to leave the house to provide for their family needs. Furthermore, for Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, ‘difficulties will increase exponentially if school closures are prolonged ‘.

Education staff are at the foreground in helping the most severely affected students, as reflected in the actions undertaken by the educational communities compiled on the Education International’s platform dedicated to responses to COVID-19.

In Palestine, the Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (FUUPE) called on its members to offer a day’s pay to the families of the most deprived students. Same initiative in Morocco where the unions agreed to prompt education workers to donate the equivalent of three day’s salary to solidarity funds against COVID-19 created for the occasion.

Others have decided to meet directly with children in need. Teachers from the National Federation of Secondary Teachers of Uruguay (FeNaPES) have arranged a food distribution for students in their areas. Teachers have thus initiated a soup kitchen operation that started on March 25 and should take place three times a week.  

An approach pushed by education unionists in Costa Rica, who brought their action before the public authorities. A proposition was thus submitted to the Ministry of Education to have food parcels delivered to the families of students benefiting from school canteens. A project intended to reduce food waste while supporting families in need.

School closures: a risk of massive post-crisis school dropouts  

For the most marginalised learners, this pandemic poses a real risk of decline in learning, both during the lockdown period and after the return to normal.

Although online tools have emerged to ensure the continuity of students’ learning, school closures have tended to reinforce inequalities. Privileged students often have better access to these tools and benefit from family support which ensures a stable working environment. For underprivileged students, the lack of technical equipment or pedagogical assistance can deepen the educational gap and ultimately create a risk of school dropout.

Long-term schools closures are even more critical in developing countries, since they often go hand in hand with an increase in dropout rate of the most vulnerable students. Previous disasters, such as the Ebola epidemic, have proven that these events weigh heavily on families who must bear the cost of illness, squalor and the loss of their loved ones. The consequences observed during and after these crises are psychological, but also economic, preventing many learners from returning to class once the schools reopen.

While this phenomenon weighs on communities on several levels, girls are overall the most severely impacted. When resources become limited by a scarcity, girls are forced to leave school before boys. Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education and International Development at the London Institute of Education notes that girls’ labour is often vital to the survival of families. Reports from international organisations on droughts in East Africa have shown that girls tend to be pulled out of school at a younger age to be given in marriage and earn an income.

Effects on the health and precariousness of education workers

More than 63 million education workers are currently experiencing great difficulties as a result of the alteration of their work by lockdown measures. While some of them are able to ensure partial continuity of their teaching from their homes and through digital tools and platforms, many do not have the skills, nor the material or infrastructural means to be able to run their lessons. For those who must continue to go to their work places to care for essential workers’ children, many unions denounce the lack of means of protection made available to them, putting their health, and that of their loved ones, at risk.

Education International is raising the issue posed by the crisis for the status of employees with precarious, informal or temporary contracts. A decline in incomes, a suspension of salaries, and even layoffs could be expected, if authorities do not try to anticipate the effects of the pandemic on staff. That’s why, in Japan the teachers’ union working closely with the National Ministry of Education and the Parliament to develop active solutions. A new law to combat the impact of the pandemic on education workers has already been passed and a special economic aid is planned soon to compensate losses incurred.

In the face of this multi-faceted crisis with an uncertain end but immediate effects, the world’s governments must commit to ensure safe and quality teaching and learning conditions for all. To meet this challenge, it is essential that the authorities work together with the education unions and civil society and solidarity actors to carry out national policies that reflect the interconnection between education and health.

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