Covid is Widening Educational Inequalities for Children Around the World

A student sits at her desk along a corridor at Kibera School for Girls, in Nairobi, on August 7, 2020. Students from the surrounding area who are facing challenges accessing the internet for virtual learning at home are permitted to study at the premises in order to access the Wi-Fi. (Photo: Tony Karumba/Afp via Getty Images)

Covid is Widening Educational Inequalities for Children Around the World

The impacts are particularly severe in Kenya, where the country's large number of HIV/AIDS orphans are struggling through yet another pandemic.

Schools and families the world over are grappling with the challenge of educating children in a pandemic. Pushing children back into schools might increase the Covid-19 infection rate. But keeping them home could threaten their future too--particularly if they don't have internet access.

Even in the wealthiest nations, the digital divide is widening inequality gaps, leaving many poor children behind. In the United States, nearly 17 million children lived in homes without high-speed Internet in 2018. While school systems there are rushing to close these gaps, millions of American children are still disconnected.

The problems in my country, Kenya, are much more severe. According to a new UNICEF report, just six percent of children in eastern and southern Africa have access to the internet.

"Education once gave these vulnerable children a glimpse of hope--but not this year."

Amongst the Kenyan children without internet access are vulnerable rural girls and boys with untold stories and dreams, and whose hopes for the future remain in limbo. Covid-19 is particularly devastating for my country's large orphan population, a group whose stories have long been hidden in data and figures. Kenya has an estimated three million orphans, one third of whom lost their parents to another global pandemic, HIV/AIDS.

Education once gave these vulnerable children a glimpse of hope--but not this year. With schools closed for the past six months, they've become resigned to the idea of no school calendar in 2020. Once again, these children are having to live through a pandemic, their dreams left at the mercy of an unpredictable future in remote rural villages, with weak education and other infrastructure.

One likely impact of Covid-19 is a rise in teen pregnancies, as adolescent girls are left without the safety net that schools provided. This gendered menace deprives young girls of the opportunity to further their education and attain their career goals. It also exposes them and their children to major health risks. According to the World Health Organization, "pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally."

One pregnant 15-year-old, Adelina (not her real name), spoke about her predator with the community action team of the Rona Foundation, which supports rural widows and orphans.

"He bought me toilet paper and ng'ombe [a type of moisturizer similar to petroleum jelly that sells for 30 Kenyan shillings, or about 28 U.S. cents]," she said. "He threatened to kill me, if I ever told anyone."

Adelina, who lost both of her parents and has been under the care of her aging grandmother, explained that the predator and her close relatives agreed to let the matter rest, with a promise that she would later be taken to live in the city with an aunt she has never met.

Similar stories are rampant across remote rural villages in Kenya, prompting despair in even the bravest of feminist hearts.

"Prolonged closure of schools means a number of our girls will not have a chance of coming back to school," says Lawrence Otunga, Chairman of the Trained ECD Teacher Association (TETA) in Kenya.

"... there is an urgent need to fast-track initiatives to safeguard further social and economic consequences on Kenyan society and the economy."

What can be done? The Kenya Ministry of Education has tried to launch a "community-based" learning plan with classes in open places, but it has been blocked by a court order. Since then, government officials have issued a raft of contradictory statements as they struggle to come up with alternative plans.

While the difficulties raised by the complexity and the uncertainty of the present moment are undeniable, there is an urgent need to fast-track initiatives to safeguard further social and economic consequences on Kenyan society and the economy.

The government must partner with businesses and nonprofit organizations that have resources, networks, and access to remote villages. At this point in the pandemic, implementing community-based learning through local grassroots organizations may be the best way to make this alternative approach achievable.

The Ministry of Education must also revive its dormant project to provide laptops for primary children, since remote learning opportunities at the pre-primary level are now more vital than ever. Both of these initiatives must be undertaken, or rural children will never be able to compete with their urban counterparts, and the promise of technology-enhanced teaching and learning will remain unrealized.

Besides digitalizing the syllabuses, there is a greater need to build capacities of Kenya's teachers in e-learning, create e-learning labs in rural schools and community centers, and stabilize the electricity supply in remote counties, or/and fund alternative energy sources for rural schools.

Covid-19 has highlighted the desire to foster a creative and craft/talent economy in addition to classroom learning. So, as Kenya's government grapples with education challenges during and beyond this pandemic, there is a need to take steps to reimagine learning environments.

In the long term, there is also a need to involve more stakeholders to support ongoing efforts to replace our traditional education system with one that focuses on core competences such as communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and imagination, citizenship, digital literacy, learning to learn and self-efficacy.

Kenya's educational challenges during the pandemic are extremely serious. But we are not alone. According to UNICEF, at least 31 percent of schoolchildren worldwide cannot be reached by remote learning programs, whether through the internet, TV, or radio.

Covid-19 has meant the loss of educational opportunities for many millions of children. As they are left further and further behind, the whole world will be the poorer for it.

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