Afghanistan’s COVID-19 education response

Ensuring continuity of education opportunities for all and building system resilience.

June 23, 2020 by Jordan P. Naidoo, UNESCO, Kabul Office, Afghanistan and Abdul Wassay Arian, Ministry of Education of Afghanistan
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5 minutes read
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A boy reads in class at Fazel Kandahari School in Kandahar, Afghanistan. March 2014.
GPE/Jawad Jalali

Afghanistan has made remarkable progress in education over the past two decades. School enrollment increased almost ten-fold from less than a million in 2001 to 9.6 million in 2018, with the establishment and construction of new schools and the deployment of thousands of new teachers.

In addition to these measures, the government, together with support from multiple partners, has increased efforts to improve the quality of education, paying attention to curriculum relevance, teacher education and learning assessment.

However, owing to persistent challenges, including insufficient numbers of female teachers, deepening poverty and debilitating conflict and insecurity, 3.5 million children, most of them girls, are still out of school (UNICEF, 2018), and consistent systemic quality remains elusive.

A new crisis threatens the education system

The COVID-19 pandemic poses one of the biggest threats to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 of quality education for all globally by 2030. This is also true for Afghanistan, as the pandemic and its impact exacerbate an already dire situation owing to the ongoing conflict.

Fully recognizing the potential of schools to contribute to the accelerated spread of COVID 19, the Ministry of Education closed all learning facilities on March 14, 2020 as part of a battery of actions instituted by the Government of Afghanistan.

Education facilities are not realistically expected to reopen before September, and even then, presumably gradually, assuming there is evidence of reduced infection rates and increased capacity for testing and treatment. Ensuring some degree of continuity of teaching and learning for millions of students and the timely and safe reopening of schools require innovative solutions.

Quickly stepping into action to face the pandemic

Accordingly, based on the instructions of His Excellency the President of Afghanistan and mandate of the Ministry of Education, a COVID-19 education response plan was developed to provide strategic direction on the use of existing resources and capacities of the ministry and development partners, and to secure the additional resources needed given the scale of the crisis. GPE contributed US$70,000 to support the plan development.

The plan includes various innovative measures to ensure continuity of education for students of general education, Islamic education and adult literacy. The plan encompasses two phases: first, an immediate emergency phase, and second, a recovery phase in order to allow stakeholders to coordinate and align both short and medium-term efforts.

The Minister of Education has guided the development of the plan and is responsible for overseeing its implementation and coordination within the wider government COVID-19 response efforts. The plan, while government-led, has included consultation with development partners through the Education in Emergency Working Group.

Key components of the response plan

Phase 1 focuses on continuation of education service delivery through:

  • self-directed learning
  • distance learning through TV and ICT
  • face-to-face instruction in small groups as feasible while maintaining social distancing.

Guidelines have been shared with schools and families to support students self-learning at home. The ministry and development partners developed a series of educational videos that students access through the ministry’s website (http://maarif.af/) and on YouTube. Here is an example.

Lessons are also telecasted through Education Television and provincial branches of National TV. Private TV and radios stations have allocated part of their airtime for educational programs and awareness raising on the COVID-19 pandemic and preventive measures.

Face-to face lessons in small groups adhering to the health safety measures are being conducted in rural areas, where populations do not have access to TV or the internet. The Ministry of Education is working closely with the private sector so that students in private schools also continue their education through distance learning and online platforms.

Despite limited resources and the sudden onset of the emergency, the Ministry of Education has made good progress in setting up and providing alternative education services.

It is also committed to developing tools and capacities to monitor the reach and effect of self-learning, distance learning and face-to-face education in small groups, while mobilizing additional resources and existing capacities to expand the reach of alternative education delivery.

Phase 2 is focused on re-opening the schools and recovery. Given the uncertainty of the situation, the plan foresees three scenarios: the emergency ends after 3, 6 or 9 months and school re-opening is planned accordingly.

The experiences from other similar pandemics indicate that it is likely that a number of students may not return to school due to various reasons, and the alternative education offerings may not provide the expected learning outcomes. Therefore, the recovery plan has considered various dimensions including the safety of students, the design and length of the academic calendar, a flexible lesson delivery strategy and social mobilization to encourage students to return to school.

Accordingly, the recovery phase will focus on, among other actions:

  • making schools and education centers ready and safe for students’ return
  • assessing the learning progress of students and adult learners through alternative education
  • recovery of loss of learning and contact time through specific strategies, such as accelerated learning, condensed subjects and lessons, increasing contact hours
  • demand-side interventions to encourage students and adult learners to rejoin the learning centers.

The Ministry of Education is reviewing the existing projects to adjust activities and resources in line with the needs identified in the COVID-19 education response plan. Applications are also being submitted to GPE and other donors to secure additional funding to address the immediate, medium and longer-term recovery.

Tracking progress and lessons for the future

The success of the response plan in achieving its objectives depends on the level of support provided by the state institutions, donors, development partners, civil society organizations, parents and students, and effective stewardship of the plan by education leaders at national, sub-national and school levels.

It is also important to document lessons and success stories in education as we collectively take on the daunting challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are already two important take-aways: First, Afghanistan needs to focus on the expanded role of ICT in education and to accelerate efforts to develop quality interactive audiovisual content based on the national curriculum; schools need to be equipped with ICT infrastructure and internet access to improve the quality of education and learning. Second, we have to ensure system resilience and build back better especially in a context such as Afghanistan, which unfortunately, is plagued by enduring crises.

GPE, as part of its longstanding partnership with the Government and people of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, is supporting the implementation of the government’s respond plan. GPE has allocated a US$11 million COVID-19 accelerated grant to support to the government response plan, and contribute to maintaining the important gains achieved in recent years by the education sector in Afghanistan.

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South Asia: Afghanistan

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