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The Pandemic of Inequality: Protecting the Right to Education

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the stark inequality in access to education, considered to be a basic human right. As schools closed and turned to a completely online format, students from less economically developed countries, primarily across Africa and Asia, struggled to keep up with regular online classes.

In India, 1.5 million schools were shut down as a nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020. Being the second most populated country in the world, the impact of this closure was far greater than anticipated. With roughly 28% of the population living under poor conditions, and 6% of the population living under the poverty line, India’s virtual education approach appeared to be unfit for its conditions.

An initial attempt of an online education rollout was made through the creation of the Alternative Academic Calendar (AAC). The various state governments were expected to adopt this plan and adapt it to their policies to ensure the continuation of quality online education. While the AAC offered direction for all levels of study, most schools across India have failed to meet their outlined objectives. As parts of the country face scarcity of electricity, the lack of attention given to access to education has severely impacted the lives of students in India.

In an attempt to fill the void of learning, the Education Ministry of India sanctioned Rs.4.69 billion to provide access to education for students in rural and remote areas. While this approach can be perceived as beneficial alongside the various online platforms introduced, only a notable 4% of the population living in remote locations has access to constant electricity and cell phones, let alone the internet. As students across the country struggle to gain access to learning material and equipment, an increasing inequality and negligence is unearthed. While the urban population seamlessly dove into daily online classes, children in remote areas were left behind.

Access to education being Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and goal number four of the Sustainable Development Goals, became a privilege and luxury only the rich could afford. Students longed for answers, but continued to be unaware of the path ahead. With all eyes on the education ministry, the youth look towards the government to secure their future.

The Local Conundrum

Maharashtra, the richest state in India, has seen an estimated 60,000 students unable to access online education after school closure. Rural parts of the state remain inaccessible and education has been made the least prioritised. The small rural village of Kasegaon was one that struggled to keep up with the sudden shift and reliance on technology. The Kasegaon Education Society (KES) is an institution that has been running numerous schools and colleges across rural Maharashtra. With 46 running institutes, and over 1100 employees, the KES has been providing over 26,000 students with education for the last 60 years. The learning however, was greatly hampered as schools shut down, and physical interactions between students and teachers stopped.

In a personal interview conducted with a board member of the Kasegaon Education Society, they stated that “because of the large numbers and limited access to technology, student’s aren’t able to get on a video call […] so the learning has been happening through pre recorded videos.” Although the students live in close proximity to the school, allowing for irregular visits and exchange of work; school hours have been limited to the time children have access to electricity and their parents’ phones. A problem of this sort, gone unnoticed by the world, has seemingly undermined the importance of schools and the consistency in education required for students to thrive and flourish – even in the darkest of times.

As the political climate of India continues to grow uncertain, state leaders show little planning to curb the threat of the Corona Virus and reopen schools. After a full academic year of online schooling and cancelled exams, student anxiety peaks with uncertainty about their future. Maharashtra State Minister of Education, Varsha Gaikwad, announced a campaign to ensure schooling for all 6-18 year olds, in February 2021. In an attempt to reduce the dropout rate, crossing 37,000 in 2020 alone, this campaign was one of the only major attempts to focus on the education sector after the global pandemic hit. While local challenges require immediate attention, a deeper rooted problem in the global ecosystem must also be taken into consideration.

A Global Effort

As the COVID-19 pandemic comes seemingly under control in various parts of the world, an alarmingly ignorant approach towards the loss of education has sparked a wave of concern among international organisations. A study conducted by UNICEF indicated over 168 million children having missed out on a year of education due to school closures worldwide. On March 25th, 2021, the United Nations Headquarters curated an installation of 168 desks and backpacks outside the main building, highlighting the impact of this loss of education.

Further urging world leaders to make the reopening of schools a priority, the United Nations, along with various other international organisations continue to work towards bringing this to the attention and forefront of all governing bodies. Making a global appeal to expand access to internet and digital resources, UNICEF states that “access to digital learning in lower income countries could be the great equalizer in education.”

World Vision International, an international organisation working primarily for the protection and development of children, suggests increased risks of violence, child labour and child marriage, as children from low-income countries continue dropping out of schools to support their families. With their work panning across 100 countries, they have been one of the leading collaborators, alongside state governments and other international bodies, to ensure the provision of education remains consistent. By planning and executing various operations in remote, low-income areas, the organisation has set up methods of weekly tutoring sessions, resource distribution, and provided access to mobile phones and cellular data.

A Genuine Attempt

The scarcity of resources, especially technology and electricity, have proven to be the biggest challenge across poorer countries. The African continent observed an exponential increase in children leaving the few remote lessons they had, to farm, work in mines and aid their parents in an attempt to sustain themselves throughout lockdowns. Nations such as Zimbabwe were some that stood out with an estimated 4.6 million children having lost out schooling. Though the initial shift to virtual learning flowed smoothly with the implementation of timely radio lessons, the extended lockdowns hindered any progress made. As radio signals weakened or stopped on a regular basis, the curriculum taught was no longer at par with what children previously had access to.

‘VIAMO’, a project funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations introduced access to an online platform made available to all students, ensuring timely and high quality lessons via mobile phones. While not perfect, an attempt to bridge the gap of learning was made possible with the Ministry of Education emphasizing the need to maintain their curriculum quality, regardless of the circumstances.

Though challenging, the possibility of ensuring access to education is not impossible. Finland, already known to have one of the most progressive education systems in the world, gracefully implemented various distance learning strategies to support their students and uphold the quality of education being offered. The Finnish National Agency for Education has laid out strategies for schools to adopt, in order to maintain communication between students and teachers. Backed by the extensive use of online learning platforms and tools, this programme has been a great success in ensuring continued learning.

The Need of the Hour

The problem here is not the lack of capability of the student or teacher. The problem at hand is the lack of resources and support given to the education sector to promote and ensure that learning remains constant. It is evident that the developed world has flourished as students, including those under state curriculums, have had adequate and equal access to the technology and resources required, to ensure the provision of high quality education. Though education has been accounted for as a human right, the scarcity of laptops, phones, internet access and limited cellular reception has robbed over 100 million students of this right.

While the health and safety of students must remain essential for all, it is imperative that leaders of the Global South ensure that the education and future of the youth is not compromised. As international bodies continue to emphasise the damage done with school dropouts increasing around the world, remedial processes already in place, must be implemented and made a top priority. Countries including Zimbabwe and India, face the threat of ailing an entire generation with the lack of access to quality education, simply due to the limited resources and attention provided by governments. Though the world works toward returning to normalcy, the neglected education sector acts as the biggest barrier, needing immediate attention.



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