Lockdown schooling threatens to widen education gap

Online learning presents an opportunity to rethink education, but in the short-term, vulnerable pupils could be left even further behind.

Online learning due to the coronavirus risks widening the education gap between vulnerable students and their more affluent peers, regional experts have warned.

More than 43 per cent of the world’s learners have no access to the internet, according to UNESCO, and millions more can’t afford home computers or devices. 

For these students – among them millions of refugees whose learning has already been interrupted - the pandemic risks entrenching already stark inequalities in education provision and future employability.

“I am deeply concerned that this is a crisis within a crisis,” said Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO of the UAE’s Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE). “The disruption is disheartening because that safe education space for refugee children and youth is critical to support their development.”

The “digital divide”, she said, meant the most vulnerable were being further marginalised due to limited access to devices and the internet.

Also worried about the damaging psychosocial impacts resulting from vulnerable children being cut-off from education, UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore, said: “Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school. 

“We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return.” 


In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), an estimated 100 million children aged between five and 17 are out of school due to the pandemic. Education providers are striving to keep lessons going and ensure disadvantaged students do not fall further behind.

It is a mammoth task, especially when so many young people do not have reliable access to the internet or a computer or tablet at home.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports Palestinan refugees, has adapted distance learning material it created during past conflicts that led to school closures to support youngsters who are once again out of the classroom due to the coronavirus.

The agency is providing a mixture of on- and offline content as well as educational television broadcasts and teacher-led livestreamed sessions for the few that do have computers and connectivity.

image title
Eight-year-old Enas Al-Malahi studies at home in Gaza after her school was closed. Photo: Khalil Adwan/UNRWA.

“Distance learning is not an alternative to learning in ordinary situations, but it is important for the students as it keeps the learning process continuous, and we try our best to complete the curriculum,” explained Mona Ibrahim, an UNRWA teacher in Gaza.

Enas Al Malahi, eight, a pupil at Gaza's Shouka Elementary Co-ed School, is getting her lessons through videos and quizzes. "Though I miss my teachers and friends, I still continue my classes from home with the help of my mother and my teachers’ support," she said. "It is good to be able to continue my classes’ even if virtually."

In Lebanon, Jusoor, a nonprofit providing education to Syrian refugees, few of whom have access to tablets or computers, has used existing parent WhatsApp groups to share its teaching materials.

“We send short videos and voice notes containing exercises for the children to work through and then they send us back videos of what they have done,” says Grace Atkinson, Jusoor’s executive director,  explaining few families had computers or fixed internet connections.

“We've had excellent feedback so far,” she said. “The parents are really happy, the teachers are happy that they're still managing to teach; and the kids apparently have been saying, send us more exercises. But the big issue will be when there is no more money for 3G data.”

Sarah Shammah, who teaches for Jusoor in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, said it had been challenging to reach all the pupils. But the 35-year-old Syrian said some pupils were displaying new talents they hadn’t previously seen in the classrooms. “Some are sending us video clips of them singing or others doing sketches and parodies.”

Online schooling also relies on parents and guardians being willing – and able – to support and encourage their children with their learning.

Atkinson said a particular challenge with some refugees from rural communities in Syria was that many of the parents were illiterate and they didn’t place a lot of value on education.

“This situation will reinforce that divide because we can’t provide the additional support and interventions like we can when the kids are physically in school,” she noted.

“A crisis should never be a cause for delay, but rather a trigger for rapid action."

Yasmine Sherif, director, Education Cannot Wait.

The pandemic has also affected millions in higher education. This means new challenges for the region’s young adults as they prepare to join an already-saturated job market in the grip of a global recession.

In Jordan, social enterprise Luminus Education has been working to deliver laptops, tablets, headsets and data bundles to thousands of its most vulnerable students and teachers to keep its courses running.

A quarter of Luminus’ learners are Syrian refugees. Any further disruption to their education would constitute a major setback for the students, two thirds of whom are on full scholarships, paid for by organisations such as AGFE, Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation, and UNICEF, among others.

According to Luminus founder and CEO Ibrahim Al Safadi, the company had already planned to move a large portion of its provision online by 2021, but it brought this forward when Covid-19 struck. Through dedicated training and student support it has achieved an over 90 per cent attendance rate across its courses.

image title
Maria, nine, follows a lesson on her father’s smartphone in a tent in rural Idlib, Syria. Photo: UNICEF

The provider is also reshaping some of its courses to reflect expected changes in the post-pandemic job market.

“We know that the hospitality and transportation sector, for example, will be badly impacted by this, so a short course in hospitality management will not lead to employment at the moment,” said Al Safadi. 

“We are looking instead at the sectors that are going to grow, such as healthcare and healthcare technology, agriculture technology, game design, and cybersecurity. That’s where we’re building capacity.”

Philanthropy steps up

The Middle East has already seen generous financial donations for those worst hit by coronavirus-related job losses. Now funders are stepping up to help vulnerable students across the region continue learning while schools and colleges are closed.

Education Cannot Wait (ECW), a global fund established in 2016 by international aid actors and private sector donors, has released $23m in emergency funds to a mix of grantees across 26 countries.

UNRWA has received $1m of this money to bolster learning and psychosocial support for its more than 500,000 Palestinian refugee students across the region. UNICEF and Save the Children teams in Palestine have received a further $850,000 from ECW, with grants also going to Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

The fund’s director Yasmine Sherif said releasing funding quickly to those most in need had been a priority and that more donors needed to step up. “A crisis should never be a cause for delay, but rather a trigger for rapid action,” she said in an emailed statement.

Emirati philanthropist Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, chair of the AGFE, announced a Covid-19 Online Learning Emergency Fund. This will support 6,000 at-risk learners in Jordan and Lebanon by providing internet, laptops and tablets, as well as technical support for digital content and online tutoring support.

The initiative comes under the umbrella of AGFE’s existing Refugee Education Fund, which was launched in 2018 to help refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and conflict-affected youth in the UAE access education by giving money to local learning providers, such as Luminus, to which it has donated funds to deliver laptops in this crisis.

In April, Dubai Cares, an education charity founded by the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, launched a fundraising campaign to deliver devices to students without home computers so that they can continue learning while schools are closed.

The campaign, Education Uninterrupted, initially focused on Dubai, but expanded nationwide to benefit all low-income learners. The appeal supports both national and expatriate pupils.

Dubai Cares CEO Tariq Al Gurg said the Ministry of Education had already distributed 50,000 laptops and his organisation hoped to give out a further 40,000. 

“There should be no one left behind in the UAE,” he said. “Laptops are textbooks. Whether you’re in high school or junior school, whatever nationality you are, you deserve and have a right to that laptop.”

Future thinking

In addition to this domestic campaign, Dubai Cares is taking a role in the international response to Covid-19 through its membership of UNESCO’s new Global Education Coalition, which was formed in late-March following school closures. 

“We need to work together to create a global system,” Al Gurg explained. “We must learn from the countries which have perfected distance learning as an immediate response, and also learn from the mistakes, the gaps, and from the oversights as well.”

Although no-one doubts the enormity of the challenge to schools, colleges, teachers and students posed by the lockdown, the situation has also presented an unprecedented opportunity to rethink not only how education is delivered but also how it can be more inclusive.

“One of the silver linings from this crisis may very well be reimagining what education can and should be in the 21st century,” notes Jenny Perlman Robinson, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in a blog post co-authored with Molly Curtiss.

But they warn that while technology will pay a key role in expanding distance learning opportunities, it is not a panacea.

“The risks of technology further exacerbating inequities must be addressed.” — PA