The past few months around the world have been dominated by anxious debate over the reopening of schools and universities – and with good reason. Parents are facing an impossible choice, whether to send the children to daycare or school and risk the possibility of infection or keep them at home and risk losing a job due to the clashing demands of childcare and work. Livelihoods versus lives.
Here in Montreal, where I live, we appear to be on the cusp of a second wave of the pandemic. The reopening of schools last week, coupled with the relaxed rules on indoor gatherings, seem to have contributed to a rise in cases. But how are parents equipped to make critical decisions regarding whether to send children back to class when even the politicians don't quite know what to do?
Most colleges have largely eschewed in-person classes, but many schools are adopting a mixed approach of part-time classes and remote learning. Some are homeschooling their children. It is great that parents are investing their wealth in their children’s education.
But the ability to pay for that supplementary or private education, or to create the environment necessary to ensure that children benefit from this form of schooling, is a matter of privilege. It means that access to education is unequal.
Not all families can afford to spend time away from work to educate their children or have enough computers or a stable enough environment at home to ensure they are all able to do their homework or attend classes. These challenges are multiplied for vulnerable households in the Middle East, such as impoverished families or those living in countries with ongoing conflicts, such as Yemen, Libya or Syria, or refugees who barely eke out a living by sending their children to work.
The scale of the challenge was outlined in a briefing by Unicef that was published last week, and which found that close to half a billion children around the world lacked access to education because they lacked the tools to work or study from home, or because there were no remote learning policies instituted in their countries.
Unicef says the 463 million figure it arrived at is most likely an underestimation. That is roughly a third of schoolchildren worldwide. Of that total, an estimated 37m children in the Middle East and North Africa cannot be reached by remote learning.
There is a great disparity in access to remote education that trends with income levels – the better off you are, the more likely your children will have good quality remote education while schools are closed.
This is a huge loss, doubly so in places where education has been interrupted repeatedly due to war or displacement.
Take Syria, for example. The war and refugee crisis has meant that millions of children, both inside the country and in refugee camps, are out of school. In early 2018, Unicef estimated that a third of school-age children from the country (aged between five and 17) were out of school, and another 1.35m were at risk of dropping out.
In addition, more than a third of schools in the country had been bombed or damaged during the war, and others were often used as shelters for fleeing families. The cost of rebuilding the education sector will likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
While reporting from Lebanon, I visited several refugee camps in the country to report on education initiatives for refugee children. Most parents wanted their children to go to school but could not afford to have them not work.
Many children had to study in classrooms that were small tents with dirt floors as they could not use concrete or other building materials. This was because of bizarre rules barring the construction of structures that could become permanent refugee camps.
And those were the lucky ones, who were not living under constant threat of bombardment. Forget about remote learning.
As a result, children living in the region’s war-torn countries have already lost years of education. The war in Syria has been going on for nearly 10 years. The ramifications will be felt for generations to come. Now, even as the conflict abates, communities in the country and outside are having to contend with a fresh crisis.
The findings ought to be a wake-up call for the international community. Since some form of remote learning is likely to persist, at least until there is a coronavirus vaccine, Unicef argues that countries should do more to ensure the less fortunate have access to schooling.
This means modernising educational infrastructure and remote learning systems, getting more computers in households without access to them, making sure that girls are not left behind, investing more in developing remote learning techniques and modules, and democratising access to educational opportunities.
But in our part of the world, we must add another urgent task – resolving conflicts and wars that have made children’s access to schooling so precarious in the first place. The costs are already astronomical. For them to have a future beyond the pandemic, the present must become far less violent.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and columnist for The National