Corona Governance in the Education Sector
Since February and March 2020, the lives and education of youth across the globe have been widely impacted by the emergence of the COVID pandemic. The policy responses by governments in the education sector have varied significantly and served to elicit critique from corresponding populations, along with varying degrees of community-led action, as well as local and/or national support. With the closure of schools and many other youth related facilities, issues concerning a lack of access to educational material, technology, and even ‘basic needs’ such as sanitation, food, and shelter are front and center for many vulnerable youths—particularly in the urban and rural margins. Now, with the COVID pandemic serving to intensify these inequalities, more voices are mobilizing, and momentum is building towards bringing light to these issues and the inequalities currently faced by vulnerable youth in the urban and rural margins that ultimately demonstrate the interconnectedness of the education sector with a range of other political, economic, and social spheres.
According to UNESCO’s statistical data on ‘COVID-19 Impact on Education,’ an estimated 1 to 1.5 billion ‘learners’ were affect by school closures at its height around April-May 2020, which amounted in that time period to be from 57% at its lowest to 84% at its highest of ‘total enrolled learners’ globally. These school closures are shown to have exasperated the ‘burdens’ placed on various actors within nationally and/or locally defined communities, especially those that are considered ‘vulnerable’ and ‘marginalized’ due to gender, age, disability, socio-economic status, or other political contexts.
One of the most frequently referred to burdens has been the ‘digital burden‘ or ‘digital divide,’ which describes a lack of access to technology, internet, telecommunication infrastructure, and digital media due to one’s geographical positioning, disabilities, economic means, and political status. This ‘divide’ has shown to not only effect young students but also teachers and parents, who may have additionally been forced to rely on digital means to support youth education and/or don’t feel they have had enough ‘training’ to handle the often confusing, stressful, and financially unsupported transition to digital learning, testing, and ‘homeschooling’ formats.
The exasperation of a ‘gendered burden‘ has also been emphasized upon, especially by scholars and NGOs. With the closure of schools, there has been a reinvigorated stressor placed on many younger girls in certain areas of the world with their attempts at simultaneously juggling both school and housework, a sudden decrease in access to feminine sanitation/hygiene and privacy once afforded in schools, and an increase in exposure to physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse with limited mobility and support. Additionally, there are added pressures towards early childhood marriage and pregnancy that then exposes girls to a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, never finishing primary or secondary education, and other long-term complications.
The COVID pandemic has also laid bare an ‘economic burden.’ For example, with added economic stress being placed on the guardians of youths or the youths themselves—due to losses in income, increased or unmanageable tuition fees, additional digital learning costs, and cancellations in the distribution of food aid previously provided by schools—there has been an increase in the likelihood of child abuse due to parental stress and frustration, child labor, homelessness, and a turn to criminal activity to get by that all then negatively affect the opportunity and achievement of youths in education. Teachers and staff have also been experiencing increased economic burdens due to decreased or halted funding and salary payments by schools and the government, leading many teachers and staff to supplement their income with part-time work (giving less time to teaching) or quitting their teaching positions all together (often leaving vulnerable youth without someone to teach them).
Lastly, there has been noted differences between rural and urban margins. In rural areas, there is frequent discussion over a digital burden, due to ‘geographic remoteness’ and ‘poorer’ infrastructure. However, in the urban margins, although urban areas are considered more likely overall to have infrastructure that can sustain digital learning, economic constraints—e.g. difficulties in affording digital technology that the infrastructure supports—appear more frequently. Thus, in the urban margins, where people still struggle with access to digital technology in order to participate in education online, the aforementioned burdens are exasperated by assumptions of the ‘urban center’ over the access of those living in the ‘urban margins’ to digital technology, economic support, and physical space.
‘State’ Actor Responses
Countries have approached the impact of the COVID pandemic on education in different ways and at different levels of public governance. Two of the most widely discussed issues include ‘school re-opening and closure policies’ and possible aims at tackling ‘educational inequalities,’ especially with the shift to online learning.
For example, in Indonesia, Guyana, Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico, open and closure policies have been governed by the heads of the national government and announced through each countries’ corresponding Ministry of Educations in and around mid-March 2020. Many MoE’s opted for a closure of two weeks to a month of all schools, and all extended such deadlines through to June and July 2020 when plans and actions for re-opening started to pick up again. In contrast, Brazil and the United States have not been subject to any national closures by the government. Instead, the opening and closing of schools has been dictated by local/regional governments and schools, and the timing of such has varied widely.
What has shown to be especially varied are the school re-opening plans of national/regional governments and schools, the amount of information publicly and frequently disclosed about such plans, and the types and amount of promised national and/or regional governmental aid distributed. Such re-opening plans have ranged from a ‘rotational class/student’ system to a regionally ‘color-coded zoning’ system to an ‘online-offline hybrid’ approach and/or ‘hierarchical learning’ approach where only students of a certain grade level return to school. What governments are dictating in terms of the re-opening of schools can also vary, such as the rules around and funding for sanitation and teacher salaries.
In terms of aid, the most prominently implemented is that of television, radio, and website educational material and channels, such as the Indonesian TVRI Belajar di Rumah (Learning at Home) Program. However, other such ‘aid’ has also been delivered in the form of printed ‘education packets,’ such as in the case of the Guyanese MoE for the urban margins of Regions One and Four, sometimes in collaboration with other private agencies or non-for-profit organizations. Additionally, ‘vouchers‘ for meals or supplies and free/subsidized internet for specific educational websites and data plans have been implemented in places like Guyana and Indonesia, and a spare, few governments have made public written plans (like the Guatemalan government’s #AprendoEnCasa [#LearnAtHome] strategy) that include sections on improving educational infrastructure for the long-term. However, these actions and statements have not gone without criticism and skepticism, and not all have shown to have been fully or even partially implemented either due to lack in public information on such plans, funding deficiencies, corruption, and/or other hidden or undisclosed factors.
Public Responses and Critiques
In response to government policy, many people have voiced dissatisfaction, often through protesting. For example, in Colombia, groups of students, parents, and teachers announced their engagement in ‘civil disobedience’ and ‘protests’ in August and October 2020 against the ‘rotational classes’ school re-opening plans set for August 2020 and announced by the government a few weeks prior, due to the danger the re-opening of schools would pose to teachers,’ families,’ students,’ and many others’ lives and health. Meanwhile, in Brazil, people have been protesting since May 2019 against the withholding and cutting of funds for education in 2020 that are now considered especially necessary to sustain student education, teacher salaries, and so on during this impactful time.
Additional responses have included parents in Mexico requesting the government to switch their child(ren) from private to public schools because of the increasing burden of tuition costs, especially with the onset of job loses and/or other increased costs of livelihood. Meanwhile, in Kenya, there has been voiced dissatisfaction, especially among youths, over the cancellation and repetition of the 2020 school year due to the disparities in access to digital resources in the country because of the foreseen effects it will have on their opportunities, competitiveness, and plans for success in the future, especially on a national and/or global scale.
The COVID pandemic also seems to have enflamed existing critiques, such as the opposition towards the widely applied “one-fits-all” approach to education, which is criticized as overly dependent on standardized exams in determining ‘success.’ Also, the approach is criticized for its attempt at standardizing a definition and approach to what ‘learning’ is and what it entails that is often considered inflexible to change, adaptation, and varying contexts. This issue has increased and resurfaced with the postponement or cancellation of many national exams, leading students who rely on the results from such examinations for future, long-term success and opportunity to be left without a path or the tool to ‘move forward.’ This is especially detrimental to those youths seeking to escape economic or social poverty.
The shift to online learning has highlighted the reliance the education system has on non-digital and ‘physical’ schooling for youth health, safety, and education. Much critique has been directed at the overall ‘unpreparedness‘ and ‘unsustainability‘ of government approaches to learning, especially online learning. These critiques are not only because of the lack in previous student and teacher digital training and experience, but also because of the abundant technological, social, and privacy issues that are prevalent currently within the designs and applications of online learning. An additional critique has been of the prominent investment of governments in temporary technological education solutions versus both digital and non-digital investments in and for the long-term. Especially temporary investment that still do not include or plan to include an increase in education funding, compensation, or a listening to the needs of those directly effect by educational issues—like vulnerable youths—before responding to issues.
‘Non-State’ Actor Initiatives
Various NGOs, private organizations, and individual actors (such as teachers, parents, students, and ‘community leaders’) have appeared in response to the gaps in ‘state’ aid and policy in the hopes of providing for and giving voice to those left unattended, unrecognized, and/or made invisible within these gaps. ‘Non-state’ actors have contributed to the educational and youth spaces impacted by the COVID pandemic in several ways: distributing monetary aid or subsidies (for food, internet, and housing–to name a few) and distributing non-digital/digital educational aid, tutoring, advice, and support. Meanwhile, in terms of long-term support and action, ‘non-state actors’ are also providing opportunities for work, income, and career training, striving to promote certain policies or creating spaces aimed at improving people’s standards of living, and further developing and distributing technologies and corresponding programs aimed at reaching currently unattended audiences.
For example, projects such as the Save the Children NORAD Project in Mozambique and the Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens) Program in East Indonesia are serving to distribute ‘learning packages’ for youth in areas without access to internet. Additionally, the Save the Children NORAD project has established a system of ‘mobile teachers’ and ‘community promoters,’ in collaboration with the local government of the Province of Manica, to assist youths with additional tutoring of material and assist teachers with material collection.
Individual actors have also joined the equation. In Mexico, a teacher attempted to recreate ‘the classroom setting at home’ for her students. In Indonesia, parents are ‘stealing’ digital technology for the educational needs of their child(ren). In the United States, a GoFundMe fundraiser was established by Taco Bell employees to fund a hotel room for a pair of undocumented girls and their mother, who were found sitting outside the restaurant without a home nor internet for their schooling. Outside of teachers, parents and community members, students in Guyana have also been paving their own way by taking this time to try and start their own small business to earn some income. There have also been people in Mexico and Guyana posting in news agency opinion columns and on blogs giving advice to students, teachers, and parents on coping and organizational mechanisms related to schooling in the hopes of finding a way to reduce parent-student and/or teacher-student conflicts, arisen out of stress and confusion caused by the current situation. These and other social media platforms, like Twitter, have often served to open up new dialogues online on the often-difficult experiences faced by students, parents, and teachers in terms of education during the pandemic.
Conclusion: The ‘Take Away’ and Recommendations
The impact that the COVID pandemic has had on the education sector is fairly visible; however, the inequalities and people, who were suffering before and are suffering even more now, are often made fairly invisible. Those most vulnerable to the impact of COVID on education are experiencing an ever-widening gap in terms of achievement, support, and opportunity. This is especially so for youths who are often excluded from a say in policies determined by national and/or local governments. In order to move forward, it is necessary that the youth, and those that represent and care for them, are included and empowered in such decision-making processes. In order to facilitate them, it is important to make education opportunities flexible and sustainable. One way is to approach education beyond the ‘classroom setting’ and acknowledge how the education sector is interconnected to a range of political, economic, and social spheres that determine the overall health, safety, mobility, and agency of youths everywhere.