COVID-19 and global inequality in education

At the global peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.5 billion children were affected by school closures across the globe. Of those 1.5 billion, 600 million had no internet access at home, and a further 230 million did not have access to a computer, according to the Teacher Task Force, an alliance of educators coordinated by UNESCO.

“These inequalities are a real threat to learning continuity at a time of unprecedented educational disruption,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education. In many places, including the United States and most of Europe, partial in-person education has resumed. However, this differs from city to city, state to state and country to country. Currently, just under 1 billion students still remain out of in-person school due to the pandemic.

This interactive map from the World Bank shows where school closures are still ongoing. 

A Glance Into Education Inequality

The pandemic has exposed educational inequities at both the macro and micro levels. Throughout Africa, a critical case study in education inequality, the statistics about online school access are particularly grim. Out of 450 million learners, just 19 million have been accessing some form of distance learning through television, radio, or Internet, according to the Center For Global Development. Africa is not homogenous, and within the continent there are wide disparities in access to distance learning.

In Kenya and South Africa, countries that have “established” education systems by World Bank classification, participation in distance learning has been significantly higher than in countries like Burundi, the Central African Republic and Eritrea, where Internet access is below 5%. Within these countries, the World Bank classifies these education systems are as “delayed.” Though many teachers have been distributing lesson materials via apps like WhatsApp and other mobile communication and social media platforms, nearly 56 million students across the globe live in areas that are not covered by mobile networks, with nearly half of those students concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, making access to distance learning nearly impossible. 

In Europe, students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds faced similar challenges. According to a United Nations report, European students of low socioeconomic status were half as likely as their affluent peers to have internet access. In low-income European countries, “less than 10 percent of the poorest households have electricity.” These students are particularly affected by the global shift to online learning amid the pandemic.

In Brazil, 74% of students are currently participating in distance learning, but that figure falls to 52% for the poorer Amazonian region in Brazil’s north, according to a survey by Datafolha. Ultimately, these studies show that access to distance learning is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, rather than nation of origin. For developing regions and populations of lower socioeconomic status, distance learning has been disproportionately inaccessible. 

Though there are large disparities within countries in terms of distance learning, wealthier nations do fare better than poorer nations in other regions in one regard: the return to school.

In countries like Japan, the Republic of Korea and Denmark, which were all among the first to reopen their schools, education expenditure per student is among the highest in the world. This has likely enabled these countries to invest in the necessary infrastructure to guarantee a safe return to school, from personal protective equipment for teachers and students to desks and classroom setups that adhere to physical distance requirements. This same level of investment is not so easily possible in countries without a strong education budget. Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, countries without the proper infrastructure to guarantee safety at school will be forced to choose between continuing a struggling distance learning system or compromising the health and safety of students and teachers.

Dropping Out and the Risk of Violence

The ongoing school closures from the pandemic are also projected to significantly increase global dropout rates, with the most vulnerable students concentrated in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, regions where students faced severe educational challenges even before the pandemic. Tertiary education is expected to suffer the worst, with a projected 3.5% overall decline in enrollment, according to a UNESCO Policy Brief. The brief asserts that up to 24 million learners globally are at risk of dropping out, which poses a stark threat to economic mobility and future earnings.  

In developing areas, school closures not only harm education, but interrupt the provision of essential services to students and families, from nutritional assistance to preventing violence against women and girls. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, sexual violence against girls and women spiked, because girls were out of school and more vulnerable to sexual assaults.

It is likely that a similar trend has emerged recently, and on a much larger scale, due to the global nature of the COVID pandemic. And, the longer the closures continue, the more students in developing areas become increasingly at risk. 

Looking Ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the educational inequities faced by students of low socioeconomic status across the globe. Though schools in some nations have begun to reopen, almost 1 billion students are still affected by ongoing school closures. Of these students, those in developing regions face extreme barriers in accessing distance education and are at increased risk of dropping out, experiencing food instability, and being subjected to violence and exploitation.

This is a grim reality for the world’s schoolchildren, with no definitive ending in sight. 

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