‘Their future could be destroyed’: the global struggle for schooling after Covid closures

Hundreds of millions of children fell behind around the world as schools closed during the pandemic. We look at four countries as pupils try to resume their education

The Philippines

Children’s mental health suffers as schools remain shut

It’s been 18 months since children in the Philippines last set foot in a classroom. The country, which has had some of the world’s toughest Covid restrictions for children, is one of just five globally that have not reopened schools at all since the Covid crisis began, according to Unicef.

Families are exhausted by the measures. Dorina Monsanto, who lives in a busy neighbourhood in Cogeo, a village just outside Manila, has six children, including four who are at school.

The children struggle to get access online lessons. At first, Monsanto’s boss gave her a phone, which was shared between her daughters Giselle Marie, 15, and Julianna, 12. They would take turns watching classes, but arguments would break out when, inevitably, they both needed to log in at the same time. Their modest home, which is shared by eight relatives, including a noisy two-year-old, is not a good place to study.

The phone has since broken, and the daughters have to use Monsanto’s mobile. If she needs to go out to work, they have no way to access classes.

Even when she is at home, the data connection is poor as the entire neighbourhood tries to use the internet.

Monsanto worries that Giselle Marie, whose grades have fallen, has become worn down by the past 18 months. “They’re losing the drive to learn. Even if they want to study, if they can’t understand what they are studying, it’s useless. They need a teacher. I can’t help them because I didn’t learn what they are learning now,” she says.

Child advocates in the Philippines warn that the prolonged closure of schools has created a crisis not just across education, but also for children’s mental health, wellbeing and safety.

At least 1.1 million pupils did not enrol at school during the last academic year, after the pandemic hit and remote learning was implemented. Charities say those who fall out of the education system are at greater risk of child marriage and other forms of abuse. Last year, the Philippines justice department said reports of online sexual exploitation of children increased by 264% during the first few months of lockdown.

“Without serious, active intervention, many of these children [who drop out] will never get back into education,” said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center. “This will be a significant loss both at the individual level for them and their families, and also at the societal level.”

On top of the closure of schools, children in Manila and some other provinces have also lived with tough restrictions that, until July, barred them even from entering parks and playgrounds. Now cases in the capital region have begun to rise again, driven by the Delta variant, and the toughest lockdown measures have been reintroduced.

Rules have been enforced harshly by police and barangay tanods (village watchmen), who activists say have arrested children found to be outside their homes, and at times inflicted humiliating or brutal punishments. Children who are homeless, or who have no option but to be outside in search of work, are especially vulnerable.

Even for children who have remained indoors, the impact on their mental health has been immense. “Just imagine for one and a half years you’ve been confined at home,” said Shiena Base of Educo Philippines, a child rights NGO.

Base said the government should reopen schools in low-risk areas in rural settings, where children are often even less well-equipped to study online.

The government is preparing a pilot scheme, involving about 120 schools in areas where cases are low, to trial a resumption of face-to-face classes.

Children’s charities fear the current crisis could be felt for generations to come. “I wasn’t able to finish my studies. I wish my children will have a better future,” said Monsanto.
Carmela Fonbuena and Rebecca Ratcliffe

Ambreen Warsi’s home is a single room in a slum in Mumbai, accessed via a steep ladder. She spent her first year as a college student taking classes in the alley where the internet connection is better.
Ambreen Warsi’s home is a single room in a slum in Mumbai, accessed via a steep ladder. She spent her first year as a college student taking classes in the alley where the internet connection is better. Photograph: Kavitha Iyer

India

Poorest students face digital learning gap

Sonali Kate, 12, spent her entire third-grade year learning to cook and clean for her family, who live in Bandra’s Nargis Dutt Nagar slum, in suburban Mumbai. She would wake at 7am, sweep their 19 sq metre home and squat in the narrow alley to wash dishes from the previous night’s meal while her brothers played cricket with other boys.

In Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, the state government has deferred school reopening this term amid fears of a third wave of Covid-19 cases. Sonali will attend online classes using a new smartphone provided by a local charity. But she is nervous about returning to learning. “Everything is unfamiliar,” she says about her study material. “My work is incomplete in history, geography, mathematics – in all the subjects. The others in class are far ahead.”

Since 2017, the Maharashtra government has operated free-to-use wifi hotspots across the city, but people living in Sonali’s settlement have not been able to access this or the free wifi offered at railway stations.

A survey in August 2020 of nearly 250,000 pupils at 1,100 municipal schools that cater to children living in Mumbai’s slums found one in three were not attending online classes. Among those surveyed, 76% did not own a smartphone and 43% could not access an internet connection.

Elsewhere across India, schools are reopening cautiously, but as in Mumbai, tens of thousands of pupils from poor or marginalised communities face a vast learning gap after months of absence or poor access to the internet and devices.

The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) 2020, published in February by the charity Pratham, found digital teaching was “not impressive” in India. Only 62% of households surveyed had smartphones. The Aser data confirmed that India’s poorest pupils would be worst hit by the prolonged closure of schools, on account of wider learning disadvantages but also loss of nutrition through the state-funded free midday meal in all non-private schools.

Schools in at least five Indian states, including in the capital, Delhi, have resumed in-person classes with safety measures that include staggered lunch breaks, optional attendance, and limited seating in classrooms.

However, not all pupils will return to school in these areas. In the capital, only classes nine to 12 can choose to attend. Tamil Nadu, a large southern state, has a similar model.

In the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum, Sonali’s neighbour Almana Shaikh, 14, is the only child in her household still in school, after both her brothers dropped out. “Buying data packs [for phones] has been difficult,” says the class 10 pupil. Her father, who used to drive an auto-rickshaw for a living, has been at home with a substance addiction. Her brothers are unpaid apprentices in a garage, and her mother’s wages as a domestic help barely pay for essentials. “Sometimes I missed classes for weeks at a stretch even though I received a phone from a voluntary organisation,” Almana says.

Learning outcomes of the digital academic year are also unclear – neither Almana nor Sonali received an end-of-year report or grades, though they took exams and were told they had been promoted to the next class.
Kavitha Iyer

Tanaka Maunganidze, 9, plays football with his friends in Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest townships.
Tanaka Maunganidze, 9, plays football with his friends in Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest townships. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

Zimbabwe

Parents struggle to pay rising school fees

In the sweltering September heat, a group of boys tussle for a plastic ball on a dusty street in Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest townships.

Tanaka Maunganidze, 9, dribbles past his opponents towards a makeshift goal. As he scores, his friends erupt in joy.

In a black T-shirt and grey tracksuit bottoms, Tanaka is the team star and dazzles passersby who look on as the boys play.

This has been their daily routine since schools were closed in again March this year as Zimbabwe entered a deadly third wave of Covid-19 infections. Since the start of the pandemic schools have been closed for 12 months in total.

According to Unicef, coronavirus has affected the learning of 4.6 million children in Zimbabwe.

For Tanaka and his friends, playing football has kept them out of trouble in the drug and crime-ridden township in the capital, Harare.

Paces away from the match, Virginia Chitakunya, 42, a clothing vendor, is drying her sons’ shoes as she prepares for schools to reopen.

The government gave parents less than a week to prepare for the reopening and a rise in school fees means many cannot afford to send their children back.

“I was never ready for the reopening of schools and my savings are not enough to pay fees for my three school-going children. I will have to go and beg the school headmaster to let me come up with a payment plan,” Chitakunya says.

On a good day the mother of five makes $10 (£7), which is not enough to support the family, let alone pay school fees.

“Money will never be enough for us here; I just have to make sure my children go back to school. I desperately need them to go back because staying at home will destroy their future. The fees have been hiked but I just have to hustle through this term,” she says.

Although most parents in Mbare may not get their children back to school this term, they believe the reopening of classes will save their children from the drug use endemic in the poverty-stricken township.

Apart from poverty, substance abuse of drugs such as crystal meth has been a danger to families, pushing up the incidence of mental illness in the country.

Due to the prolonged closure of schools, thousands more teenage girls have become pregnant, and more have married early, the government says.

Chitakunya’s nine-year-old son, Kelvin, says he is looking forward to the start of school on 6 September. Although he loves football, like the children playing in the street, Kelvin has stuck to his books.

“My mother could not afford private lessons, so I was reading my books at home. I want to be a lawyer so I will have to work very hard to attain this,” he says with a smile. While parents are struggling to afford a decent education for their children, teachers are also demanding a pay rise before returning to work.

“Learners are on the verge of losing out on their right to education because the government is not prepared to pay teachers a living wage. These learners cannot afford to pay fees or even for the government to chip in and waive school fees since parents’ incomes have been eroded by inflation,” says Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union .

While those who could afford it turned to private lessons during lockdowns, remote learning was blighted by rising internet costs. Many children like those in Mbare will be far behind their peers when schools reopen.

To help children catch up, the government has extended the term by a month. But to get Tanaka and his friend off the football pitch and into class, their parents face a struggle to afford their school fees.
Nyasha Chingono

Pupils attend school during the pandemic in Burkina Faso.
Pupils attend school during the pandemic in Burkina Faso. Even before Covid, education suffered in some areas as armed groups mounted attack after attack on schools, pupils and teachers. Photograph: Kalidou Sy/UNICEF

Burkina Faso

Radio lessons keep learning on track

Mariam*, a 14-year-old girl living in the Centre Nord region of Burkina Faso, used to enjoy going to school before Covid-19 hit the west African country last spring. Her school shut, and she was left wondering what would become of her education. One of Burkina Faso’s growing number of internally displaced children, she was living among some of the most vulnerable and poorest people in the semi-arid Sahel.

Eventually, however, she was able to get back to learning via the radio and a programme of distance education that the government in Ouagadougou is now planning to roll out to more children across the country. “They were very good because they allowed us to maintain our level of study,” says Mariam. Her favourite subject is mathematics.

Now, as the country prepares to reopen as many schools as possible from 1 October, she hopes the radio classes will have provided enough of the basics to make her return to the classroom easier. “Thanks to this programme, we think we will be able to return to school in October,” she says.

Her teacher, Armand*, says the radio classes helped prevent children like her – many of whom have fled jihadist violence – from dropping out of education entirely. “It was a good opportunity,” he says. “Thanks to this programme, displaced children have been able to learn something [during the closures].”

Lessons broadcast by radio had been around in Burkina Faso before last year: the country has a rich history of audio learning that goes back to “rural radio” in the 1970s, when farmers learned about the latest agricultural methods over the airwaves.

But this programme has been scaled up considerably since the pandemic and is now part of the education ministry’s £11m plan to ensure greater “educational continuity”. The move has been widely welcomed, not only because of continuing anxiety over Covid but because the country is still dealing with violent attacks that have closed schools for the past six years.

Dabla Touré, an education specialist for Unicef, which is supporting the ministry with the rollout of lessons, said it was vital they continue. “It’s clear that for some [the new school year] will mean an opportunity to return to the classroom. On the other hand there is a large number of pupils who are … for the moment out of school and who will probably stay there. And when I see the way the security situation is going in those regions [of the country], this number could rise in those parts, as in others.”

Even before the pandemic, parts of Burkina Faso were struggling to keep children in the classroom as armed groups mounted attack after attack on schools, pupils and teachers. In January and February 2020, more than 330,000 pupils were out of school, according to the education ministry. The situation has barely improved since then. As of the end of May, 2,244 schools remained closed, affecting more than 300,000 pupils and almost 12,500 teachers.

Against this backdrop of turmoil, the radio classes are “a must”, says Issoufou Ouedraogo. An education specialist working for Save the Children , he has been seconded to Burkina Faso’s education ministry, advising it on how to keep children in learning.

Distance education cannot replace face-to-face teaching, he says. “Rather, we can use it as an alternative in places where [in-person] education is not possible, as we did during Covid,” he says. “For instance, we have some areas which are under the control of armed groups. In these areas, schools were closed, teachers were redeployed. A lot of students are there without any kind of education.”

Ouedraogo acknowledges the programme’s faults: many of the poorest families, chiefly among Burkina Faso’s 1.3 million displaced people, do not own a radio. In the turbulent Sahel region, which has the greatest number of closed schools in the country, community teams supported by Save the Children have distributed radios and advised families on how to get the best out of the classes.

Nevertheless, both Ouedraogo and Touré agree that, while not ideal, the classes are better than nothing: a way of keeping up the “habit of learning” until a school can, perhaps, reopen its doors. That has certainly has been Mariam and Armand’s experience. But now their eyes are firmly on the future. “My hope for the new school year is that the children will be able to go back to school like before,” says Armand.
Lizzy Davies

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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