Classes Stopped, But Learning Continued!
This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series.
Like everywhere else in the world, for most activities, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a “new normal”. Work, ordering food and other daily activities, hangouts and parties all had to move to a virtual space to prevent the spread of the virus.
Education, in particular, was hard hit. And, as is always the case in emergencies, education became a lower priority for families and local, regional and national governments. The impact was great with physical classes being stopped completely and schools closed. For weeks students were unable to receive their lessons. Those students who were enrolled and making progress in school were at risk of dropping out due to economic hardship, loss of interest, or falling behind academically. Gradually, schools also began to leverage the virtual space to hold classes. This was easier in countries where internet was available and accessible; and devices such as tablets, phones and computers were available and affordable by parents or guardians.
In many of the countries where Mercy Corps works, access to the internet and technology devices can be challenging. This is against the backdrop of contexts that are not particularly favorable to the education of adolescent girls especially. The combination of sudden school closure plus no online alternative is more than a setback; it can endanger their futures in a variety of ways. Being out of school can mean added household responsibilities, pressure to marry early, and exposure to gender based violence. Education programs had to innovate to ensure that learning was accessed by participants.
Closure of safe spaces for learning
Most of the adolescent girls-focused programs implemented by Mercy Corps use the Safe Space approach to engage with and improve the learning experiences of marginalized adolescent girls both in and out of school (i.e. improve learning outcomes for in-school girls and provide a space for new and continuous learning for out-of-school girls). This is in addition to building social capital which boosts their social network for enhancing knowledge and informal safety nets.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic also resulted in the closure of the safe spaces for program participants thereby ending physical in-person meetings. With schools and safe spaces closed, there was a serious threat to participants’ learning. To combat this threat and ensure that learning continued, quite a number of adaptations were made to program implementation.
Radios: not just for the news
Radios are quite common in many homes, even in the ones where marginalized adolescent girls reside. While it serves mainly to get information on current events in the country and for music, it was put to another use during the restriction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercy Corps’ girls education program in Nigeria collaborated with the National Mass Education Commission (NMEC), to connect with out-of-school learners through a Literacy by Radio programme. The initiative supports learning in English, Mathematics and life skills in the form of radio recordings developed by NMEC. The learners were provided with workbooks with which they were able to practice what they learnt via the radio program.
In Nepal, with just weeks to graduation examinations, grade 10 students were worried about the effect of the school closures. What was envisaged to be a few weeks’ delay became months and students’ anxiety levels grew. Exams were cancelled and study classes were not possible. The girls’ education program had to disseminate lessons through local FM stations to help the students recall what they had learned in the academic year.
Phones are not just for selfies
Before now, among adolescents, phones have always been a means to connect with friends and take beautiful pictures. Due to the pandemic, it also became a tool for learning.
Due to lack of internet access, the Mercy Corps Haiti team developed a direct call mechanism to facilitate life skills training for adolescent girls and boys. Parental engagement and involvement was key as they had to make their phones available for the adolescents at the scheduled times. The program participants had received manuals prior to the training. Adolescents were put into groups of seven each with two trainers and a supervisor responsible for facilitating the trainings via calls.
In Jordan, Mercy Corps’ mental health and psychosocial support program employed the use of phones to disseminate much needed information and lessons to adolescents in camps and host communities. The dissemination was done through phones via WhatsApp messages, voice notes, videos, short messenger services (SMS) and one-on-one calls.
The girls’ education program in Nigeria also made use of phones to ensure participants were able to continue with their learning. The different cohorts formed WhatsApp groups with their facilitators and these ensured continued bonding among the girls. Posters/pictures, videos, SMS and voice notes were used for literacy, numeracy, life skills and financial education classes. COVID-19 related information was also disseminated via this medium with the added bonus of girls creating awareness on the pandemic within their families and communities.
What did we learn?
It is gratifying to know that many of the adaptations ensured that program gains were not completely lost. In some cases, like in Nigeria, participants have maintained the WhatsApp groups where they still engage with one another and learn together.
One key learning from all programs cited is the need to be intentional with the design of projects and programs so they are adaptable to any situation or circumstance. Pandemics, conflicts and any other form of crisis or emergency shouldn’t be a barrier to the continuous and effective engagement of adolescent girls in supporting them to learn and thrive.
About the Author
Abiose Haruna is Mercy Corps’ Advisor for Adolescent Girls & Youth Programs. She provides technical support to country teams to improve program quality, facilitate cross-learning, build capacity and coordinate dissemination of best practices in adolescents’ and youth programming. She also contributes to adolescent girls’ focused proposals ensuring they are indeed girl-focused.