As American school districts continue to balance the need to keep students actively learning with concerns about the spread of COVID-19, many children around the world don’t even have the option to go back to class.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said recently that half the world’s student population are still unable to head back to their classrooms.
“Today, almost nine months since the coronavirus outbreak started, 872 million students — or half the world’s student population — in 51 countries are still unable to head back to their classrooms,” Fore said September 15 at a joint UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO press conference in New York.
Even in the United States, in districts where education is still taking place online, many students are not showing up for their Zoom sessions, according to some reports.
But in some parts of the world, there is no such thing as “online learning,” whether it’s through the internet, TV or radio.
“In the rural areas, many people don’t have access to electricity, let alone the internet,” said Delhi-based Fr. Joson Tharakan, India country coordinator for the charity Mary’s Meals. “Even if there is accessibility, many people don’t have platforms. We have 102 schools where we are operating normally, pre-pandemic, but none has been able to open, and none has online classes. Children don’t have the gadgets; there is no internet, and many teachers are not trained. Even many teachers don’t have the gadgets.”
India has ordered elementary and middle schools to remain closed indefinitely, affecting more than 200 million children, according to the New York Times. Some teachers are making house calls and teaching in small groups, and youngsters preparing for universities are allowed to go to school, but the vast majority of students are either idle or scrounging for ways to help their families make money.
“The worst affected and afflicted people are the children in the rural areas, the poor children,” Fr. Tharakan said in an interview last week. “In the villages, children are idle, helping out with the farming if their family has land. … Our urban slum schools are in a total standstill situation where there is no learning at all happening, because most of the children were displaced, and for those who remain it’s a time of survival, because they’re trying to get food; parents are trying to get some work, and nothing else.”
He said that Indian children “don’t know how to spend their time,” so there is a lot of anxiety and restlessness. There are no books to read or television to watch.
Crucially, children are losing the habit of learning.
“There used to be a culture of going to the school,” he said. “Life seems to be without aim — just get up in the morning and roam around wherever they can.”
Mary’s Meals, which was founded by a Scottish salmon farmer and now works in 19 countries, provides meals in a school setting so that children in some of the world’s poorest areas can continue their education. During the pandemic, Fr. Tharakan said, the charity continues to provide the raw materials, which parents can pick up at school and cook at home.
Similarly, the U.S. McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program links the provision of meals with kids being in class, and in at least two African countries, Catholic Relief Services personnel are trying to continue the work as they administer the program in their locales.
Bernard Ndi, CRS’ “chief of party” for the McGovern-Dole project in Sierra Leone, which benefits about 60,000 children in 310 schools, said there is excitement about schools’ planned reopening next Monday, but “a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”
“Parents are skeptical as to how the new school year will operate within the COVID-19 context,” Ndi told Aleteia by email. “There is a concern in many communities that teachers will abandon their schools to find paid work. In most of the CRS-supported Food for Education beneficiary schools, most of the teachers are volunteers, meaning they are not on the government payroll and rely on remuneration from communities and the school feeding program. When school is closed, they’re more likely to relocate to other areas with more job opportunities.”
When schools were shuttered, the government and certain partners tried to conduct education over the radio, and the project had some success, Ndi said. But some communities did not benefit from this due to radio signals not reaching them. CRS stepped in by acquiring two radio transmitters to get the signal to the Koinadugu and Falaba districts.
In Mali, where the CRS-McGovern-Dole partnership feeds 77,000 children in 291 schools, last year’s academic year suffered from a double blow. Classes began in October but were put on hold by a teachers’ strike in December. Then, just a month after school resumed in February, it shut down again because of COVID.
“It’s a real bad situation we are facing with COVID-19,” said CRS’s man in Mali, Edouard Nonguierma. “In addition, we are facing security issues as well. And rural areas are affected by climate change.”
Nonguierma said the government tried to set up distance learning through radio and television, but in the rural areas people don’t have TV. And many people don’t have a radio. “We tried to check with our school management committees to find out how students can gather around a common radio without creating an opportunity to spread COVID,” he said. “We also tried to distribute the school manual in our project area so students can continue to read at home. It helped in cases where parents were really engaged and supportive of their children’s education, but in rural areas, they are more eager to bring their children to the fields, to help in farming.”
But schools recently reopened, Nonguierma said, and there is at least a sense of hope in the air.
In Bethlehem, meanwhile, students living at Franciscan Boys Home took a proactive approach.The Home, founded in 2007 as an affiliate to Terra Sancta College, seeks to open a new window of hope and a lifeline to a brighter future to boys ages 6-18 years old who come from broken homes.
During the pandemic, the 33 youngsters raised money and delivered food and basic supplies to elderly residents of Jerusalem and Bethlehem who were unable to leave their homes. The boys delivered boxes of basic necessities such as water, milk, bread, eggs, canned tuna and chicken to people’s doorsteps.
“To have these young people organize such an event that goes on every week is good for them psychologically,” said Franciscan Fr. Peter F. Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which donated $20,000 to the effort. “They’re doing something good for their neighbor, and they’re being part of taking care of the community.”