In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as International Day of Education, “recognizing that education plays a key role in building sustainable and resilient societies and contributes to the achievement of all of the other Sustainable Development Goals.” Two years later, over 91% of students worldwide, or more than one and a half billion children, were out of school due to COVID-19. As a member of Global Minnesota, Global Volunteers attended the International Day of Education Symposium on post-COVID education strategies. Read on to learn more.
Calling education a “human right, a public good and a public responsibility,” UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay urged NGOs to fortify their education agendas during the global pandemic. Schools serve as a student feeding center and a sanctuary from violence for girls, she reminded participants. Before the pandemic, 137 million girls were out school, but now, and estimated 11 million more may never return to class. These girls will not only lose academic and professional opportunities, but even basic safety, Azolay asserted. “Education is an essential lever to respond to the challenges facing our world.”
Besides helping provide meals and safety, education is also our best ally against racism, antisemitism, discrimination, and social injustice. Respect for others, acceptance of differences, and fight against racism can all be taught. Because of these benefits, among others, education should not be considered a cost, but an investment, and one of the most important investments there are. Unfortunately, according to UNESCO’s estimates, education budgets in low- and middle-income countries could drop 200 billion dollars per year because of COVID-19. This is unfortunate especially when the pandemic has shown the limitations of a digital or distance learning approach and made evident that effective education requires face to face contact.
“Education is not only a universal right, but also a public good and a public responsibility, as well as an essential lever to respond to the challenges facing our world.”Audrey Azoulay
In this context, participation from all stakeholders and states as well as multilateralism is required to restore, improve, and expand education with the ultimate goal of achieving peace, said Azoulay. To close her remarks, Azoulay quoted the American poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish: “Of course we can educate for world peace. I’d be willing to go a great deal further than that. I’d be willing for my own part to say that there is no possible way of getting world peace except through education.”
Education in the United States
Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and head of the Education Transition Team for both former U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. President Joe Biden, said the disruptions caused by the pandemic provide inspiration to reinvent the U.S. education system. Because the current education system was established a century ago to implement mass education on an assembly-line model, she said, returning to normal is not enough. Rather, a new system requires new learning opportunities for students.
Drawing from the science of learning and development, Dr. Darling-Hammond stressed the importance of recognizing that learning is not only academic, but also social and emotional. Relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning. The relationships that students form with teachers lead to greater comfort, engagement, and motivation to learn. Conversely, adversity generates unhealthy emotional states that hinder learning. A depressed or stressed child will have great difficulty learning. Unfortunately, the pandemic has generated high levels of anxiety and stress in adults and children alike, further diminishing the already limited learning opportunities for the latter. Fortunately, strong, trusting relationships, social and emotional support, and opportunities to develop social and emotional learning skills can help alleviate the psychological effects of traumatic experiences such as those brought by the pandemic.
COVID-19’s impact on education for students worldwide, especially for struggling communities, was another topic discussed at the symposium. Speaking on the matter, the CEO of Opportunity International Atul Tandon shared how people from these communities have repeatedly expressed that besides basic health, housing, and income, education is the most important need for them. The pandemic has hit these communities particularly hard as it has robbed them of their sources of income. With schools closed, the concern is not only for the educational opportunities missed, but for something even more basic: food. For many of these children, school feeding programs were the most important source of meals, and it is now gone.
“Respect for others, acceptance of differences, and fight against racism can all be taught. Because of these benefits, among others, education should not be considered a cost, but an investment, and one of the most important investments there are.”Audrey Azoulay
Out of the more than 1.5 billion children who left school because of COVID-19, about 20-25% have already gone back, Tandon revealed. However, online learning is an issue for children in developing countries who don’t have a computer at home or only a “dumb” phone. But students are not the only ones with issues. School administrators and teachers also struggle. Schools become financially unsustainable and have to close while teachers face new teaching challenges that make it hard for them to keep students engaged. Even after the pandemic is over, it will leave a lasting negative effect on education. When kids from struggling communities leave school, they rarely go back, according to studies cited. Most of them will have started working to help their families deal with harsher financial conditions. An estimate of 20-25 million kids won’t go back to school ever again – most of them girls, said Tandon.
Crystal Ikanih-Musa, in-Country representative for the Malala Fund in Nigeria and Habiba Mohammed, co-director of the Centre for Girls’ Education in Kaduna State, Nigeria, went deeper into the effects of the pandemic on girls’ education in struggling communities. As they pointed out, even before the pandemic, conflict and displacement kept girls out of school, while poverty, and social and cultural norms such as early marriages prevented them from completing their basic education. On top of this, COVID-19 created harsher economic pressures that made school fees unaffordable once these reopened. Another factor that has kept girls away from school is the need for more hands to work or do domestic chores. In harder times, families tend to prioritize educating sons to daughters. Finally, early and forced marriages have become more common as they represent “one less mouth to feed” at home.
For instance, the women explained that before the pandemic, boys and girls in Nigeria spent five to six hours on lessons at school, while during the pandemic 77% of them spent less than two hours a day studying. One of the reasons for this is the lack of required devices and access to internet. Unfortunately, there are no other viable alternatives to tech-based learning. Educational TV and radio was not accessible to all even when the required devices were present at home. Out of 1,300 households interviewed, only nine reported having received offline educational material such as take-home packs or textbooks. Similarly, only three percent received support from schools or teachers. But things were worse for girls than for boys on this matter. One out of four girls, or 50% more girls than boys, said that they didn’t receive learning assistance of any kind at home.
On top of all this, there is the challenge of bringing children back to school. Besides the issues outlined by Tandon, students are afraid of being exposed to the virus at school, said Ikanih-Musa and Mohammed. Since many schools were used as isolation facilities for COVID-19 patients, students associate the school with the virus. In the end, children are left fearful of going back to school, discouraged by the lack of educational materials and support at home, and even discouraged by their own families as harsher economic conditions make education of secondary importance compared to generating enough income to survive.
Global Volunteers’ Role
In this new context, aiding students, teachers, and schools in struggling communities becomes more necessary than ever. Long before the pandemic and thanks to the support of volunteers, we have provided educational materials such as textbooks, notebooks, pencils, pens, and others in Cuba, Greece, Nepal, Peru, Poland, Portugal, St. Lucia, and Tanzania. Further, volunteers donate a broad array of school supplies in all the communities where we teach children. Also, since 1990, Global Volunteers has engaged short-term volunteers in conversational English teaching in most of our partner communities. Our volunteers have taught English to youth and adults in preschools, elementary, junior and senior high schools, universities, businesses, government agencies, and language camps. But our contribution to education goes well beyond teaching English and providing school supplies.
We have worked improving school infrastructure in Ecuador, Peru, St. Lucia, and Tanzania. Helping to upgrade, expand and repair school facilities and assisting teachers in their classrooms are major service projects for Global Volunteers. Besides this, in Tanzania and St. Lucia, volunteers have also worked to provide clean water, sanitary facilities, and healthcare, all which improve school attendance. Through health and hygiene workshops, medical care and construction of hand-washing stations following the development of a general clinic in Tanzania, children’s improved health led to a reduction in absenteeism. But just as good health is necessary for children to learn, so is adequate nutrition. That’s why in Tanzania we partner with Rise Against Hunger to provide fortified meals to preschool and primary school students, while in Ecuador and Peru we also support the communities in their school feeding programs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have worked with our community partners Sagrada Familia in Peru, FUNDAC in Ecuador, Papa’s House and the St. Joseph school in Nepal, Kids’ Step Early Childhood Development Center in St. Lucia, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCT) in Tanzania, among others, caring for, stimulating, encouraging, and teaching children in their communities. As mentioned by Dr. Darling-Hammond, relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning. We’ve always believed this and stressed to volunteers that, as our volunteer manual states, “even though the work project is often the principle objective of the local people, for Global Volunteers the project is only the vehicle to establishing genuine friendship and to serve the mutuality of understanding.” We recognize that friendships catalyze education, and education catalyzes world peace, to paraphrase Director Azoulay. Through service, material resources, renovation projects, and relationships, Global Volunteers has helped children all over the world learn and reach their full potential as well as bring different cultures closer to peace for over three decades, and we will continue to do so more boldly than ever as soon as it is safe to travel.
“Of course we can educate for world peace. I’d be willing to go a great deal further than that. I’d be willing for my own part to say that there is no possible way of getting world peace except through education.”Archibald MacLeish
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