ACCORDING to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) Report 2020, school closures due to Covid-19 kept 90% of all students out of school, which consequentially reversed years of educational progress throughout the world.
While many education systems turned to alternative delivery modes, with online learning growing in popularity, it is estimated that remote learning remains out of reach for at least half a billion students across the globe.
Even if students were able to return to school, it may come as a surprise to note only 65% of primary schools have basic handwashing facilities critical for Covid-19 prevention.
The UNSDG Report added that before the pandemic, progress towards inclusive and equitable quality education was slow with over 200 million children estimated to still be out of school in 2030.
Imagine the scenario post-Covid-19! Its overall impact on our children’s education and development is still unfolding.
Staying focused on education
While a cause for concern, we must nevertheless remember that education is an important equaliser, arguably more so in the time of Covid-19.
We cannot deny that in some parts of the world, inequality still exists. Even though we are moving into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0), it is sad that not everyone has access to basic education, much less technology.
It is worth reflecting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) and the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), which state that obtaining education is an inalienable right and that higher education should be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit and individual capacity.
Likewise, Goal 4 of the UNSDG aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
In the 73 years between the UDHR and the UNSDG, the call to education empowerment remains strong and consistent – and rightly so.
Education institutions are safe grounds where equity should be promoted, inclusivity fostered, and diversity celebrated.
These are the communities where children can, and should, learn to value differences and be nurtured into future generations of global citizens who will be caretakers of our world.
These are where they can make, and grow from, mistakes, and where solutions to post-Covid-19 and UNSDG challenges are debated, ideated and innovated.
As such, all education stakeholders, from governments to the private sector, local communities and schools themselves, must continue to provide hope and put in effort to ensure that no child is left behind.
With the pandemic changing the traditional classroom setting to a digital one, some students can afford computers or gadgets but many from low-income families cannot.
Some countries are addressing this by deploying traditional means such as by airing educational programmes on special television channels.
This “learn from home” phenomenon encourages parents to be part of their children’s learning journey. In some communities, children gather at a friend’s house or community centre to learn together, forming a “learning bubble”.
Time and time again, research has shown that education increases not only a child’s future career and earning prospects, but also those of his family. Thus, education must continue in order to uplift communities.
Young children cannot be left idle and in the eventual post-pandemic world, we need to embed our learners with the lifelong culture of learning, unlearning and relearning. We must also prepare our children for the future workforce.
The World Economic Forum once reported that “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately work in new jobs that don’t currently exist”.
Just a year ago, a “face mask designer” was unheard of. Who knows? The future might see the birth of “vaccine selection advisors”, “climate change real estate negotiators”, and more.
Due to the pandemic, teachers had to move from face-to-face to fully online lessons, some of whom literally overnight.
While a steep learning curve for the non-tech-savvy, many now communicate with their students via phone, email and video chat apps.
From teaching a room of 20 to 30 students, teachers must now contend with talking to a screen or camera, and be creative and innovative in their teaching, to retain their students’ attention online.
Therefore, it is important that teachers constantly improve themselves by continuously learning, researching and innovating, so that they can impart useful textbook knowledge alongside lessons for life out of school through experiential learning.
Likewise, school administrators play a vital role in supporting and equipping teachers with the necessary upskilling opportunities.
Teachers have always been a source of inspiration for their students and now even more so.
Apart from teaching, they wear multiple hats including the responsibilities of subject-matter expert, mental health counsellor, career advisor, and more.
We must therefore support our teachers wholeheartedly.
With the roll-out of vaccines currently ongoing globally, it is just a matter of time before we will be able to return to some sense of normalcy in our day-to-day lives.
We must remember that education is a long-term and lifelong endeavour. Despite the setbacks in the last year or so, it is the long-term benefits that we have to keep our eyes on.
The journey has always been about developing forward-thinking, innovative, dynamic and values-driven global citizens who can thrive and succeed in the fluid and fast changing world of the 21st century.
As long as we have our hearts set in the right place (and the right gadgets at hand), we can ensure that education fulfils its role as an equaliser for all our students.
Prof Elizabeth Lee is the chief executive officer of the Sunway Education Group. A veteran in the field of private higher education, Prof Lee is also an advocate for women in leadership. She has been recognised both locally and internationally for her contributions in education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.