Dealing with school disruptions in MENA

Providing temporary free and universal access to the internet might be the only reasonable course of action.
Sunday 22/03/2020
A girl and a boy use a giant interactive display screen at the Qatar National Library in the capital Doha on May 19, 2019. (AFP)
A girl and a boy use a giant interactive display screen at the Qatar National Library in the capital Doha on May 19, 2019. (AFP)

The coronavirus outbreak has caused officials to close schools and universities, keeping half of the world’s student population from going to class. This is probably the widest educational disruption since World War II.

Figures recently released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) stated that no fewer than 850 million children and youngsters are out of school after governments around the world closed schools and universities as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus, which has infected about 217,000 people and killed more than 9,000, Agence France-Presse reported. The decision to close educational institutions has affected — totally or partially — at least 113 countries.

“The scale and speed of the school and university closures represent an unprecedented challenge for the education sector,” said UNESCO, noting that “this represents more than a doubling in four days in the number of learners prohibited from going to educational institutions.”

This massive education disruption interrupted the normal process of learning for millions of children, teenagers and young adults around the world and obviously in the MENA region as well.

The number of students in the region is not small. In many parts of the Arab world, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan, there are more than 7 million students at all levels of education in each country. That figure is more than 25 million in Egypt alone. In less populous parts of the Arab world, students make up about one-fourth of the population.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the effect will be deeply felt by millions and millions more in society who are struggling with other aspects of the fallout from the pandemic.

Some MENA countries are also in a situation of war and strife. Regular uninterrupted education was already very difficult to ensure there. Being out of school in these countries will put thousands of children in harm’s way because of prevailing conditions of insecurity.

Some Arab countries have scrambled to offer students online education. That means internet access, which varies between one country and another and across social strata.

Providing temporary free and universal access to the internet might be the only reasonable course of action during this health crisis. Such an extraordinary step would require a combined effort between governments and the private sector. The economic losses incurred would pale in comparison to the benefits reaped by society. In any case, time will probably show there is no other option.

The ability and availability of parents to guide their children through the type of teaching provided via the internet is not going to be the same. Less educated parents will have more difficulty tutoring their children. Economically challenged families will not find it easy to provide computers or internet connections.

“The current situation imposes immense challenges for countries to be able to provide uninterrupted learning for all children and youth in an equitable manner,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, a French cultural figure of Moroccan origin.

“We are stepping up on our global response by creating a coalition to ensure a fast and coordinated response. Beyond meeting immediate needs, this effort is an opportunity to rethink education, scale-up distance learning and make education systems more resilient, open and innovative,” added Azoulay.

The ability of the UNESCO could be bolstered by input from the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation, UNESCO’s Arab equivalent.

Pan-Arab institutions should coordinate their approaches with UNESCO in providing educational applications and platforms and online teaching material to help with remote learning during school closures.

UNESCO has published a list including Arabic language online education resources Edraak and Arabic language online video learning platform Nafham.

As fear and at times panic grip the adult world, children and youth will need psychological guidance as well as they stay at home. That could be of equal importance to the health precautions that need to be taken in the face of the pandemic.