The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools for billions around the world. Globally, according to UNESCO, school closures due to COVID-19 have affected 1.29 billion students in 186 countries, which is 73.8 percent of the world’s student population. For many children in Subsaharan Africa, where several challenges are battling quality education, the coronavirus pandemic halted education. The inaccessibility of a safe and reliable learning environment made it difficult for children and young people in deprived communities to fully benefit from their right to education. The reopening of schools is providing an inclusive solution to the disparities introduced by the pandemic.
Countries with robust educational systems moved towards e-learning. However, this also highlighted socio-economic differences as internet access and the need for suitable technology was not accessible to all. Though many countries were at different points in their COVID-19 infection rates, many schools were closed by April 2020. South Africa, Algeria, Mauritania, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, and Rwanda were among the first African countries to officially close schools in March 2020.
Though many schools and universities in Subsaharan Africa moved some of their programs to online platforms and traditional mass communication tools, the impact of extended education disruption was significant. For most children in deprived communities, going to school was an “escape to reality.” As such, they benefited from school feeding programs and psychological support. Some of the challenges children in less privileged households face include poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall difficulties in children’s mental development due to reduced interaction related to school closures.
A WHO survey of 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that schools were fully open in only six countries as of August 2020. They were closed in 14 countries and partially open (exam classes) in 19 others. This test run helped some governments to establish detailed guidelines for the reopening of schools in 2021.
Nigeria and Ghana, among many others, have reopened schools at all levels for normal academic activities. Nevertheless, a rapid resurgence of COVID-19 in many Subsaharan countries has led Rwanda, Zambia, and South Africa to close schools once again because of the December festivities.
According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, children rarely get severely ill from COVID-19. Data from around the world have confirmed children very rarely require hospitalisation, and generally only experience mild symptoms when infected. About 1.3% of children with a known case of COVID-19 have been hospitalized, and 0.01% have died. Hence experts say it is safe to reopen schools.
Though the reopening of schools supports inclusivity, it is not the most sustainable option to support inclusive education in the long run. The pandemic pushed for innovation in education provision and exposed gaps in many educational systems in developing countries. To achieve quality education for all by 2030, it is crucial to accelerate innovation within education, which the pandemic drew attention to. Seeking short-term solutions like reopening schools to make up for students who cannot access the internet should not limit any government to explore sustainable measures to make e-learning accessible to all. The future is technology. Population growth and the digital divide remains a threat to the provision of quality education. As the pandemic has tested our educational systems’ resilience, the needed structures need to be established and strengthened to eliminate disparities in access to quality education.