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.