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School’s out: Pandemic disruptions highlight challenges and solutions for learners everywhere

Students at the Bloorview School Authority in Toronto face considerable challenges. As patients of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, they learn while undergoing intensive therapies as a result of surgery, chronic illness, brain injury and complex medical needs. These days they also must deal with restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, attending class in shifts to ensure physical distancing, wearing face masks and sanitizing their hands throughout the day.

Despite their own struggles and the disruptions brought about by the global health crisis, these young people are focused on the hardships of schoolchildren a world away. They are participating in a program run by UNICEF Canada where they learn about the dire conditions for students in Malawi, 70% of whom must sit on the floor because there aren’t enough desks. The Bloorview classes are raising funds through online efforts to buy equipment for schools in the East African country.

A teacher wearing a mask stands at the front of a classroom before three students. Two of them are sitting in wheelchairs and one is sitting on a chair.

Bayan Yammout teaches a leadership and advocacy class at Bloorview School in Toronto. Photo: Bloorview School Authority

Called Kids in Need of Desks, or K.I.N.D., the initiative helps students “understand what it means to be global citizens in a pandemic,” says Bayan Yammout, a leadership and advocacy teacher at Bloorview. In her classes, she introduces issues like social justice through activities such as K.I.N.D. throughout the year. “We like to engage our students in rich discussions on how we can make this world better and safer for all children.”

The program brings home the differences between classrooms in developed and developing countries. But it comes at a time of enormous disruption for schools everywhere, as measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 present uncertainty and threaten setbacks for learners.

Fears of a lost generation

UNICEF has warned that school closures and widespread interruptions caused by the pandemic could cause irreversible harm and lead to a “lost generation” of young people. It cautions that this “child-rights crisis” could be felt even more in poorer countries because of factors from the digital divide to the importance of school there for children’s health, nutrition and psychosocial support.

A recent report, by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank found that schoolchildren in low- and middle-income countries lost nearly four months of schooling in the first six months of the pandemic, compared with six weeks for those in high-income countries. At the peak of the lockdown, school closures disrupted the learning of almost 90% of students, more than 1.5 billion schoolchildren worldwide. It also found that children who are out of school for extended periods are less likely to return, especially girls. The report said the problem is magnified by limited access to remote learning and inadequate resources to ensure the safe operation of classrooms, thwarting any chance of normalcy for children. The longer schools are closed, the more students suffer from learning losses, which has long-term negative impacts on their future income and health.

“We need to make sure that children are able to get back into school, not only for their education and their access to learning, but also for their immediate safety and well-being,” says Annie Bodmer-Roy, director of international policy and programs for UNICEF Canada. She notes that in emergency contexts, schools are frequently “the first services to break… And at the same time, they’re very often among the last to open.”

Bodmer-Roy is the mother of two young children and has her own concerns about the effect of the virus on their education in Canada. For example, with the need for physical distancing, teachers are less able to offer one-on-one support to students like her daughter in grade 2. Her son in junior kindergarten struggles with uncertainties.

“Being a parent in the context of the pandemic anywhere is challenging,” she says, although adding that “it’s really on a completely different dimension when we’re looking at contexts like children and families in displacement, in conflict or facing disaster.” She believes that people all over the world have a lot to learn from each other to ensure that children can safely get back to class.

Almost a year into the COVID-19 crisis, innovative programming approaches supported by Canada are helping children and young people whose lives have been upended by disruptions in their schooling. Global partners have come together to provide initiatives targeted at all academic levels and in a wide range of settings to deal with the educational impact of the pandemic.

Lessons for early learners

While schools are closed in Mozambique, 8‑year-old Ayah happily learns through Telescola, televised lessons that reach 1.2 million kids in grades 1 to 3 across the country at a critical time in their educational development.

Two children wearing masks with notebooks on their laps sit in front of the television, on which a woman is teaching a lesson.

Eight-year-old Ayah follows lessons on the Telescola program on television with the help of her older brother. Photo: Right to Play

“I miss school a lot, especially playing with my friends during the break, and the Portuguese classes I love so much,” says Ayah. Confined to home, in the early days of the pandemic she was asked to take on more household chores, which kept her away from pursuing her studies. Today she participates in the Mozambique government’s Telescola program, which broadcasts televised lessons to children across the country. Canada’s Right to Play, with the support of Global Affairs Canada, trained teachers through a team on the ground in Mozambique how to deliver engaging lessons for children in grades 1 to 3. They use play-based learning approaches and activities that motivate young students to overcome the boredom and distractions they can feel in such remote learning. The team also helped to make teaching approaches gender-responsive, ensuring that girls see themselves reflected in materials and lessons.

“I am happy to continue playing the games I played with my teacher at school,” says Ayah. “Thanks to the Telescola program, I am able to return to school when they reopen and get good results, as I never stopped studying.”

The tele-schooling is part of Right to Play’s Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) program, active in Mozambique, Ghana and Rwanda. It focuses on core academic skills while including segments on gender issues, COVID-19 and public citizenship. It also ensures that girls are positively represented in learning materials.

Daina Mutindi, country director for Right to Play Mozambique, says it’s helpful that Telescola comes through televisions, which are much more common in households than online devices. Teachers can also connect by phone to parents, who are encouraged to lead their children in extra exercises that are delivered in short videos on the WhatsApp platform.
“Interrupting learning for children has huge impacts in our country,” says Mutindi, noting that only 46% of students complete primary school in Mozambique. The COVID-19 closures threaten to make that number even lower, especially among girls. Children languishing at home become anxious, frustrated and fall behind, she says.

Among Right to Play’s efforts are public messages about child rights and the rights of girls to education. These have been disseminated via megaphones, on television during the popular evening soap operas and through local radio broadcasts.

Mutindi believes one of the strengths of the Telescola program is that it has enhanced the engagement of parents and guardians in their children’s education, which “was weak before COVID”. She hopes parents will continue supporting their children, working together with their teachers. Right to Play has also trained “literacy promoters” to bolster learning within families and communities, which Mutindi hopes will have a lasting impact after the COVID-19 crisis.

Inspiring adolescent girls to thrive

Keeping girls learning and safe during the COVID-19 school closures is a passion for Tisiyenji Ngoma. She is part of the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED), a pan-African movement that provides life-skills training, mentorship and financial support to girls in marginalized communities. This is done through a network of young women leaders who were also educated with CAMFED support, called the CAMFED Association.

A woman smiles as she holds up a fancy cake on a plate.

Tisiyenji Ngoma, chairperson of the CAMFED Association in her district of Kasama, Zambia, holds a cake made in her bakery. Photo: CAMFED

Ngoma, 26, who owns a bakery and runs two other small businesses in Kasama, a rural town in northern Zambia, received help to continue her education right through university from CAMFED. Today she acts as a role model for girls and is the elected chairperson of the CAMFED Association in her district. She sees an even greater need for the support the organization provides during the pandemic.

“School interruptions brought about child marriages in most areas,” says Ngoma. Families hurt financially by COVID-19 mitigation measures often see no choice but to marry off their daughters, she points out, as they struggle to feed and house them. Parents of girls may also be paid a sum of money or in kind by the groom’s family.

To help young women develop financial independence and ensure they’re “not seen as a burden at home,” Ngoma has helped graduates in Kasama set up small businesses so they can buy their own sanitary supplies and lotions. They make and sell frozen drinks as well as face masks, which also means they can share health information in the community about the virus.

CAMFED Association members trained as “learner guides” provide a life-skills program called My Better World in partner schools. When the pandemic hit, these peer sessions continued in small groups to ensure social distancing and included teachings about COVID-19 prevention. Ngoma also visited homes and was invited to speak on local radio about child marriage in the pandemic and its consequences.

But she continues to worry about girls who are out of school because of COVID-19.

“We’ll stop at nothing to try and reach them, so that they don’t slip into child marriage or drop out to go find work out of financial insecurity and hunger,” she says. “All of us will suffer if we lose the potential of millions.”

Improving on the pre-pandemic “normal”

A woman sits in front of a large circle of children on the floor of a classroom.

Bayan Yammout, a UNICEF Canada ambassador, teaching children at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2019. Photo: UNICEF Canada

It’s critical to make a connection between education at the global and local level, says Bayan Yammout, who in addition to teaching at Bloorview School is a UNICEF Canada ambassador. In the autumn of 2019, she trained teachers at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. She says her students love hearing about her experiences there and discussing global issues.

Her classes have so far raised $1,400 for schools in Malawi through the K.I.N.D. campaign. All of her students have special needs and they worry about children having to sit on the ground, not to mention how kids in wheelchairs like many of them can attend schools with such limitations.

The report by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank notes that schoolchildren with disabilities are especially affected by the pandemic. They’re disrupted in their daily routines, cut off from supportive services and more likely to be excluded from education, the report says.

The report suggests a six-point plan to protect the world’s youth, including ensuring that all children are able to learn by closing the digital divide. It states that “the pre-COVID ‘normal’ was never good enough for children” and warns that the “devastating impacts of COVID-19 on children will reverberate for years to come.” Authorities are asked to “reimagine and deliver on a better future for children and young people coming of age during this first truly global emergency.”

Annie Bodmer-Roy of UNICEF says the current crisis highlights “that preparedness matters, and the resilience of these systems matters.” Her organization has started a program with Global Affairs Canada support called Back to School Better that tackles barriers to education for refugee and displaced girls in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali. “We’re not working to have a ‘kind of return to normal’, we’re looking at having a reorientation and actually reimagining education systems so that no child is left behind,” she says.

A girl wearing a mask sits at a plain wooden desk reading a book in a classroom.

Caroline, a 15-year-old student at Luwambazi Primary School in northern Malawi's Nkhata Bay district, sits at a desk provided through the K.I.N.D. program. Photo: UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka

Canada has a long history in children’s rights and much to offer in terms of long-term solutions to the education crisis that COVID-19 has highlighted, Bodmer-Roy says. “In the face of a global pandemic, I really hope that we continue to show that leadership and mobilize Canadians so that we can really reimagine a world where children don’t have to sacrifice their access to education.”

She believes there is much to learn from developing countries that have experienced past emergencies, and many opportunities for Canada to participate in the discussion.

“We don’t have to come to the table with all the answers,” Bodmer-Roy comments. “We should be looking to learn from each other. It’s a global pandemic; we need a global solution. That requires us coming together and offering what we can.”
Looking to the future is equally important, she says.

“There will be another emergency, whether it’s limited to a specific country or a region or something global, like this pandemic,” Bodmer-Roy adds. “And it’s really a moment for us as an international community—and as Canada and Canadians—to think about what we want our contribution to be.”

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