Coronavirus is widening the learning gap

Part of the solution lies in providing those in need with the adequate tools to continue their education remotely

epa08675120 Students wear protective masks in class during the first day of school at Lycee de Garcons Luxembourg secondary school in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, 17 September 2020. According to local media reports, over 48,000 students are enrolled for the new school year in Luxembourg's public and private secondary schools.  EPA/JULIEN WARNAND
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As the academic year begins and the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the world’s ability to make long term plans, schools and universities must find ways to protect the health of young people without compromising the education of 1.6 billion pupils and students.

A new report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which comprises 37 developed nations, has found that a “massive shift in productivity” is required to compensate for months of disrupted learning in the wake of the pandemic.

The OECD has found that up to two months of classes were lost from February to Mid-May. The education system must make up for that loss, so that the future of pupils and students is not compromised. For those appearing for national exams, the quality of their education could make the difference between passing and failing. For younger pupils, staying away from their peers for extended periods of time will also affect their social and emotional development.

Most nations have had to go into at least one lockdown since the onset of Covid-19 in December 2019, forcing educators to rely largely on remote learning. More than 94 per cent of the world’s pupils have been affected by school and university closures, but this shift in teaching methods has impacted young people to varying degrees, according to a plethora of different factors.

Data collected by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) shows that there are 71 countries in the world where less than half the population has access to the internet, an essential tool for remote learners. Yet nearly three-quarters of countries reporting to Unicef have used online platforms to remedy school closures. This means that pupils living in remote areas, with little to no access to electricity or the internet, are losing out on education.

Even in developed nations, the learning gap is set to widen. Those who can afford the necessary tools for remote learning, such as individual laptops and tablets, as well as access to private tutoring, in person or online, have a significant advantage over those who come from a modest family background and cannot afford these expensive devices.

Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah warns that "in its current form, distance learning threatens to foster economic and social inequality if risks to accessing quality education are not addressed".

If the international community fails to act now, an entire generation may miss out on its education

Concerted action is needed to ensure that pupils and students can still dream of a bright future. The pandemic has already disrupted their education and taken a toll on the economy and, consequently, employment prospects.

Part of the solution lies in providing those in need with the adequate tools to continue their education remotely, whether this means improving access to internet and electricity or equipping them with laptops or tablets for online learning. Some initiatives are already under way to ensure that young people are not deprived of their right to education. For instance, disadvantaged pupils at some schools in the UAE laptops to help with their remote studies.

Such humanitarian initiatives should be encouraged, wherever possible. If the international community fails to act now, an entire generation may miss out on its education, developing its core skills, and the chance for a better future.