Before the global outbreak of COVID-19, the Sustainable Development Goals 2020 report showed that the world had been making progress on poverty, healthcare and education. Although the fifteen-year global effort to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — the United Nations’ blueprint for a more peaceful and prosperous future — was already off track by the end of 2019, the pandemic poses unprecedented challenges that can further disrupt SDG progress. In particular, school closures may reverse years of progress in access to education and exacerbate existing education inequalities worldwide.
Data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows that in 2018, approximately 258 million children of primary and secondary school age were out of school. Now, amid the pandemic, school closures are keeping 1.5 billion children physically out of school across the globe. While some countries have successfully implemented digital learning programs that allow students to receive education instruction from home, many regions don’t have the technical infrastructure to do so.
Although governments across the globe are putting substantial effort into providing remote learning opportunities, responses vary depending on level of income. About 90% of high income countries are providing remote learning opportunities, while only 25% of low income countries offer remote learning platforms. However, the existence of online learning materials does not guarantee easy access or equal opportunity, especially in low and middle income countries where only 36% of residents have access to the internet. Even for those with access to online learning, the education received is inferior to in-person instruction. Thus, it is likely that the transition to remote learning will widen the existing gap between low and middle income countries.
In both developed and developing countries, schools serve as far more than just literacy centers. For many children, educational facilities are safety nets that offer an escape from child labor or forced marriage, while also providing the benefits of social interaction and nourishment. Studies show that children not enrolled in school are at a higher risk of child labor and starvation.
The World Food Programme estimates that 310 million children in low and middle income countries were fed while at school in 2019. School meals offer a range of benefits for children including increased enrollment, improved nutrition, and alleviation of poverty. The closure of schools as a result of the pandemic means disadvantaged children now face malnourishment, hunger, and diminished learning capacities.
Studies also indicate that school enrollment has a negative correlation with child marriage, especially when it comes to girls. Through the closure of educational facilities, coronavirus has compounded existing gender inequalities and increased the risk of gender-based violence. By further limiting girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services, COVID-19 has only worsened the health conditions of girls from low income families, subsequently deteriorating their educational attainment. Additionally, economic stress created as a result of the virus coupled with children spending more time at home puts girls at a greater risk of exploitation, child labor, and domestic violence.
While the pandemic affects everyone, its educational impact is more devastating for groups already living in vulnerable situations, such as refugees. Before COVID-19, refugee children were already twice as likely to be out of school than their peers. Now, children living in refugee and displacement camps are at an even greater risk of dropping out due to overcrowding, poor health facilities, and lack of nutrition. Barriers to education have only worsened during the pandemic, tarnishing recent improvements in refugee enrollment rates and jeopardizing efforts made to include refugee learners in national education systems.
Those who were not already enrolled in school are now at a greater risk of never receiving educational instruction. Lack of access to infrastructure and the internet means that refugee children are likely not able to access remote learning programs implemented by governments.
Also at risk of worsened educational quality are children with disabilities. 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries where access to education is already an ongoing challenge. Further, international responses to the pandemic have relied heavily on technological solutions involving computers, tablets, and virtual lessons. While remote learning programs are a great alternative for some populations, these lessons often lack accessibility features necessary for learners with disabilities.
Children with disabilities may require additional support typically available to them at school such as care services, assistive technology, or basic education support. Access to these services, in addition to school nutrition programs and inclusive WASH facilities, may be disrupted during lockdown. Children with disabilities are sensitive to disruptions in routine and require additional support to work independently and learn properly. These accommodations are limited or nonexistent for many children with disabilities across the globe, putting them at a greater risk of being left behind in the international response to COVID-19.
The pandemic will have detrimental effects on student learning across the world, with children in developing and low-income countries bearing the brunt of this crisis. Not only has the virus impeded progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, it has also torn apart safety nets for children and exacerbated gaping inequities in global education.
Now that student learning has transitioned to remote platforms for the foreseeable future, this crisis is not only likely to reverse global gains of increased enrollment rates and learning outcomes, but it will also diminish the capacity for quality learning, leaving the most disadvantaged populations behind. The long-term consequences of this unequal educational distribution are far-reaching and will likely be reflected in worsened poverty, inequality and child hunger, further threatening the viability of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.