COVID-19: 66% of children unable to get remote learning are from south Asia, Africa, says UNICEF

Voicing concerns over the limited reach of remote learning exacerbated with regional inequalities, UNICEF urges countries to prioritise the safe-reopening of schools

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Thursday 27 August 2020

Africa and south Asia accounted for nearly two-thirds of the school children across the world who were unable to access remote digital learning due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, said the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The pandemic aggravated gaps between rural and urban areas, with a critical impact on the education of children, especially disadvantaged ones. With nearly 1.5 billion children now out of school, inherent inequalities in accessing the internet and other tools deepened the global crisis in learning, UNICEF said in a report August 27, 2020.

When most of the schools opted for remote digital learning, 463 million school children across the world were not able to access remote learning. Of the 305 million children in Africa and Asia, those in sub-Saharan Africa were the most affected, with half of them not getting access to remote learning, said the report.

Forty-nine per cent of 135 million children were left out in eastern and southern Africa, while 48 per cent of 113 million children could not access remote learning in west and central Africa. 144 million children, or close to 38 per cent school children in south Asia, were not able to gain access to digital learning.

Poor, rural children disadvantaged

Several rural areas in India were deprived of remote learning as well, the report pointed out. The optical fiber network under the flagship BharatNet project — that the Union government claimed is the world’s largest rural broadband internet project — has not reached most Gram Panchayats yet, according to a parliamentary panel report from March.

Schools in Delhi, the national capital, struggled with giving access to digital learning to children either, according to media reports.

School children from poor and rural households across the world were the most disadvantaged, according to the report. Globally, at least 72 per cent of schoolchildren (333 million) unable to access remote learning were from the poorest households in their countries.

The report showed upper-middle-income countries failed to ensure equality in access to remote learning as well. In these countries, school children from the poorest households accounted up to 86 per cent of students unable to get digital learning access. Globally, three-fourths of school children without such access, live in rural areas, the report pointed out.

Access to remote learning does not ensure learning

The UNICEF report was based on findings from a joint survey on national education responses to school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was conducted by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank. 

The number of children potentially reached by broadcast media or internet solutions was based on the availability of related assets, including the television, radio and internet at home and not their actual use by children.

Access to remote learning tools did not ensure learning, UNICEF warned in its report. Even when children had the necessary platforms, they may not be able to learn remotely due to a poor learning environment and lack of skills in teachers or support in using online or broadcast curriculum. 

The number of children ‘left out’ was, thus, much more than the estimates, said the report.

Prioritise safe re-opening of schools

UNICEF has, thus, urged countries across the world to prioritise the safe reopening of schools, voicing concerns over this limited reach of remote learning, exacerbated due to regional inequalities.

Every dollar invested in increasing enrollment in pre-primary education returns $4-9 in benefits to society, according to UNICEF’s estimates. Over 120 million pre-primary school children, however, were affected because of the limited reach of digital learning.

“The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is tantamount to a global education emergency,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF. “The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come,” she added.

The guidelines released by the UN in April provided a roadmap for the safe reopening of schools. These guidelines must be noted by over 90 per cent of the countries with some form of remote-learning policy, the report said. Going forward, it will be important for education systems to focus on adaptation to withstand crises in the future, it added.

Although remote-learning policies were originally designed in response to the pandemic, they can be used as a way to deliver education even after schools reopen. The world must focus on democratising access to safe and secure remote learning for all, the UNICEF stated in a set of recommendations.

Television can play a major role in delivering education during school closures even though it is not very convenient to transmit course material, the recommendations said. Urgent investment to bridge the digital divide to reach every child through remote learning must be the primary agenda in a post-COVID-19 world, UNICEF said.

India must take note of the report, as the country needs to fix the gap in access to digital tools and technologies as a long-term measure for digital literacy, education and growth.

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