This opinion piece was first published in Devex on March 16, 2020.
While countries around the world are racing to understand and limit the spread of the new coronavirus, and as headlines focus on those efforts, a major side effect has been overlooked: education.
As of March 16, 777 million children and students have been forced out of schools and universities in a total of 100 countries, with 85 governments closing schools nationwide and 15 others imposing localized school closures, according to UNESCO. A large majority of those – 670 million – are between preschool age and 18 years old. Those numbers are only likely to rise in the near future.
It is a staggering number, and with many other countries and municipalities likely to follow suit, there will be a profound impact on families, communities, and learning everywhere. And while interim distance and remote learning programs will be put in place in many locations, the most marginalized, poverty-stricken, and vulnerable children will be at the greatest disadvantage.
COVID-19 is, in fact, amplifying the struggles that children are already facing to receive a quality education. Even before the outbreak of the virus, there were 258 million out-of-school children across the globe — principally due to poverty, poor governance, or living in or having fled an emergency or conflict. While there are programs dedicated to ending the existing crisis in global education, the dramatic escalation that the novel coronavirus has introduced brings forward two fundamental and urgent questions.
First, how can education be continued during a global health crisis and play a role in mitigating the virus? Second, what is the role of education in preventing future pandemics?
In response to 2014’s fatal Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Global Business Coalition for Education, an organization founded by Theirworld, put forward a threefold response for education, focusing on emergency provision, safe reopening of schools, and sustaining healthy communities — which drew on principles applicable to nearly all public health crises. All three are relevant today: