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Continued learning during COVID-19

By Aaron Kirunda

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed over 10 million primary and secondary children out of school. With the earliest expected normalcy return being 2021, an inclusive learning approach that leaves no child behind is essential.

According to the World Bank, 83% of children 10 years and under in Uganda are learning poor (meaning they can’t read and comprehend), and lack functional skills for the dynamic job market. While the lockdown only created a temporary out-of-school problem, prolonged closure of schools is making being out of school permanent for some children, especially older ones that are being lured into petty jobs, early marriages and pregnancies (which in many communities in Uganda means the end of school).

The various measures proposed to continue learning are not suitable for the rural child and the settings they live in and may just amplify learning inequalities. Remote learning platforms require internet and hardware that are inaccessible to rural and poor households. Widely accessible mediums like radio and TV are centered around mass education and are mostly personalized and monopolized by the adults in the home, making it difficult for children to use them for their own learning needs.

Sierra Leone and Liberia’s experience with Ebola should serve as an instructive example even as we jump on the Radio and TV bandwagon. After six to eight months of closed schools due to Ebola, 13% and 25% of children respectively did not return to school, while most who returned to school could not re-call material they learnt pre-Ebola, despite the use of radio and TV mediums. The girls were affected most, with several getting pregnant, even as we have seen in our case, just 3 months into the lockdown. This goes to show the kind of challenges we shall have, after investing a lot of resources in these mediums.

For any parent who has tried to sit at home and teach his children or follow what is happening on TV or radio, one thing is clear: the active involvement of a teacher, with ongoing assessment, is critical for any learning to take place.

Based on what is known about COVID-19 and the effectiveness of social distancing in reducing its spread, a partial reopening of school can be implemented at no cost or disruption to the already flat curve. The idea is to use the school, or even the church or mosque as an exchange point, avoiding the face-to-face student-teacher interaction and regular school activities with a contactless exchange of learning materials and assessments.

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With this approach, teachers will prepare the reading lists and assignments, while children simply pick up the daily work and assignments, and submit the assignment from the previous day. The children can then do the work at home or in small groups. For this to work well, children can be allotted different times to come to school to avoid overcrowding and improve social distancing while ensuring more targeted learning. This can even enable teachers to individually focus on children that are lagging, helping them get explicit feedback on assignments.

With several teachers still on the payroll and sitting at home, this provides an opportunity for them to continue to work and support children in their communities. Private school teachers can also be hired to assist in implementing this plan. Children don’t have to walk long distances as they can use any nearby community center, school, church, mosque as an exchange point. This can make it easy for the Ministry of Health to implement their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), like setting up hand washing points with soap etc.

This approach can be used in addition to other interventions being proposed or implemented. The government will be crucial to the successful implementation of this approach by ensuring effective information sharing, and purchase of adequate learning materials. The private sector, media houses and local communities through their leaders should also be mobilized to support, giving parents the confidence to allow their children to go and pick materials and to be given ample time to study them and do the assignments. Civil society organisations can also help with monitoring and evaluation and mobilizing resources to provide learning materials.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of providing inclusive and quality education for all. Our government has taken several measures to curb the spread and started to re-open the economy to avoid a complete economic collapse; however, the impact on education can be permanent and for children who lose learning opportunities or completely drop out. We need to ensure that this does not happen by heavily investing in education.