UNESCO – COVID 19 and Global Education

Since Covid 19, we have seen devastating effects all over the world. Across the globe, we have experienced illness, loss and a severe global economic downfall. I spoke with Rolla Moumne, Right to Education Specialist, UNESCO, and Sharlene Bianchi, Associate Project Officer for Right to Education, UNESCO to discuss how COVID 19 is effecting education, specifically with developing nations.

UNESCO has a continued commitment to promotion equal education across the globe. With the current COVID 19 crisis, we see over 24 million learners from pre primary to the tertiary levels risking dropping out of education. Why is this happening?

Promoting equality in educational opportunities, as reflected in UNESCO’s mission, is a continuing challenge and continuing effort. Education systems around the world have been faced with unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the delivery of education massively shifted to distant learning solutions. The hasty deployment and use of distance learning solutions during the pandemic has revealed new challenges. Often heavily reliant on connectivity, such solutions have increased the marginalization of the most vulnerable people, as only half the world has access to Internet. While the world was already not on track to achieve international commitments to education prior to the pandemic, this crisis has exacerbated preexisting disparities worldwide, with vulnerable students, who are usually more at risk of being discriminated against, at an even higher risk of being left behind.

Why do we see over 11 million girls risking dropping out of their educational studies?

The COVID-19 pandemic, like most public health crises, has gendered impact which puts girls at a greater risk of dropping out. According to research conducted by UNESCO, the causes can be multiple: More men than women have access to and use internet across all regions of the world yet learning continuity during COVID-19 was particularly reliant on online access and digital skills; The increased burden of unpaid care work impacts learning (for example, during the Ebola crisis, girls faced an increase in domestic and caring duties when schools closed which impacted their learning leading to a higher number of girls dropping out of school on school reopening).

The risk of gender-based violence is amplified during pandemics linked to quarantine, social distancing and lack of health and protective services as they are diverted to address the crisis (early and forces marriages, transactional sexual relations to cover basic needs and pregnancy also were reported to have increased during the Ebola crisis); Finally students affected by conflict and migration are hit the hardest – girls specifically face even greater gender disparities due to the strengthening of existing barriers to education that they face (for example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that, in Ethiopia and Kenya, for every ten boys, seven refugee girls are enrolled in primary school and four in secondary school).

Since many schools across the world have begun and continued remote learning as a way to fight Covid 19, how are those who are at an economic disadvantage coping with low internet speeds or no access to the internet?

There has been concern for equity and inclusion over the scaling up of distance learning solutions which are too reliant on internet connectivity and digital devices. Half of the total number of learners – some 826 million students – kept out of the classroom by the COVID-19 pandemic, do not have access to a household computer and 43% (706 million) have no internet at home. Disparities are particularly acute in low-income countries. In addition, while mobile phones are a tool for learners to access information, connect with their teachers and with one another, about 56 million learners live in locations not covered by mobile networks, almost half of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa. Teachers also have been impacted by these distant-learning solutions, as the rapidity with which the transition to online learning took place was often challenging and not accompanied by appropriate training and support. To circumvent these challenges, low technology-based solutions such as print-based learning and one-way broadcasting (TV and radio) have been adopted in certain countries. The digital divide has also been addressed through measures such as the temporary provision of digital devices and of free internet data packages. The organization of quick teacher training sessions also is necessary to ensure the correct delivery and use of distance learning tools. Such measures have helped in bridging the digital gap.

How can we help with remote learning solutions for those in need?

UNESCO has listed some useful educational applications, platforms and resources to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure[1]. Along with using distant learning solutions, there is a need to adjust curricular objectives and prioritize humanitarian social caring to address any psycho-social challenges that the learner may be facing. While ensuring that the most relevant and context sensitive solution has been adopted for distance learning, there is a need to ensure an increase the technological and content preparedness. Additionally, while support for teachers is essential, parents and caregivers also need to benefit from guidance.


How can a school participate in ending the discrimination in education?

Headmasters, teachers and school staff have an influential and powerful role in ensuring equity, access and quality in education. By shifting mindsets in their communities and empowering girls and boys to learn, dream and succeed, teachers can tackle many of the obstacles blocking children from accessing education, as well as alert relevant authorities if their right to education is being violated or denied. Through human rights education is furthermore an essential part of the curriculum which contributes to eradicating all kinds of discrimination, ensuring that students learn tolerance promoting understanding and valuing diversity.


How can families who have economic advantages help those in their communities that are economically disadvantaged during covid 19?

Students of economically advantaged families can help their peers to stay motivated and focused, offering, when conditions permit, to invite them over to follow classes together. Parents can also support the community by donating digital devices, sharing internet access and relieving parents of child-care duties particularly during school hours. Lack of school meals also has negative impacts on the most vulnerable and as such contributing to ensuring access to food has benefits on the realization of their right to education. Furthermore, through collective mobilization, parents and associations can advocate for the right to education and put pressure on the government to cater to the needs of the underprivileged.


What are some suggestions to build better, non- discriminatory practices in our education systems?

The crisis revealed that most, if not all, education systems were seriously unprepared and ill-adapted to ensuring continuity of inclusive education and learning. There is an urgent need to put in place learning systems that enable lifelong and life-wide learning opportunities for all. Policy responses to mitigate the risk of learners not returning to schools should be system-wide, and especially address critical factors that push learners out of education systems, through:

  • reviewing education legal frameworks, policies and plans in light of the international human rights obligations and commitments and lessons learned from the crisis with the view of strengthening the right to education and the resilience of education systems
  • improving curriculum readiness and introducing innovative approaches to teaching and learning, such as the gradual integration of hybrid/blended learning programmes
  • increasing focus on inclusion and equity measures, including gender equality, to ensure vulnerable students, especially those with special needs, are provided with necessary pedagogical and other support to return to education institutions


Governments and civil society organizations need to advocate to ensure that social, cultural, economic, geographical or other factors do not pull learners out of education systems through:

  • strengthening awareness on the right to education, as well as advocacy on the importance of education for sustainable development
  • boosting collaboration between all stakeholders to ensure high social demand for education and student motivation and to address disengagement
  • engaging with finance and other concerned ministries to advocate that investing in education is also considered as a solution for economic recovery and growth, ensuring that education is an important part of stimulus packages and that vulnerable learners are not impeded in accessing education by economic, sanitary and nutritional factors


Transform national information and learning management systems in order to better track and support learners’ education and well-being beyond merely registering learners’ presence at school. This monitoring could be done through:

  • repositioning education management information systems not only as tools for retrospectively capturing the situation but more as early warning systems that detect and act on the risks in participation and learning in education as well as learners’ and educators’ well-being
  • investing in research and evidence-building on how to harness various and alternative education delivery modalities, as well as their effectiveness and potential risks
  • exploring innovative approaches, including technologies, to bring schools and other education institutions closer to the learners and learning communities and their needs


Therefore this pandemic has created an incredible opportunity to re-imagine and transform education.

Tell us about UNESCO’s End Discrimination in Education campaign.

The year 2020 marked 60 years since the adoption by UNESCO’s General Conference of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the first international legally binding instrument covering the right to education extensively. This Convention highlights States’ obligations to ensure free and compulsory education, promotes equality of educational opportunity and prohibits any form of discrimination. Today, 106 countries have ratified this instrument, yet we are still far from universal ratification. Through the global campaign ‘Say no to discrimination in Education’, UNESCO aims to raise awareness on the power of the 1960 Convention in the context of the global Education 2030 agenda, to increase its ratification, to strengthen its implementation and enhance its monitoring. There is a need to ensure the realization of the right to education in all contexts by renewing the attention paid to the rights and obligations laid down in this instrument in order to effectively putting an end to all kinds of discrimination and ensure equality of opportunity in education.


*Special thank you to Rolla Moumne, Right to Education Specialist, UNESCO, and, Sharlene Bianchi, Associate Project Officer for Right to Education, UNESCO for their fantastic interview, detailed answers and optimism to help us begin to re-imagine transforming education for the world.


[1] https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/solutions