No Education, No Protection
In April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, UNESCO estimated that more than 1.5 billion children and youth – nearly 90% of students worldwide – were out of school, disrupting the academic progress and social and emotional development that education provides. For nearly a year now, with schools closed across the world in response to the pandemic, many children and young people have traded classroom desks for kitchen tables.
For many millions, however, the reality of COVID-19 related school closures has been far less comfortable, leaving them unable to continue their education and exposing them to increased risk of exploitation and abuse. For children and young people in crisis-affected, post-crisis, and refugee hosting countries, school closures compound the risks and harm they already face from the effects of the crisis around them.
In Lebanon, that quiet corner for homework might be in a shelter for families whose homes and schools were damaged or destroyed by the August 2020 Beirut blast. Children in a Syrian refugee family, already displaced by war and unable to secure a place in an oversubscribed, underfunded Lebanese school, may be sent to work in agriculture to help support the family. A child in rural Rwanda may huddle next to a radio – if the family has one – trying to follow along to broadcasted lessons; if her family is supportive of girls’ access to education, she may be able to focus on homework rather than take on extra household duties. In Sri Lanka, parents who experience grinding poverty and social exclusion as tea plantation workers may mortgage their homes and possessions to buy the technological devices needed for their children to access online schooling. In both Colombia and Eastern DR Congo, out-of-school children and young people make attractive recruits to armed rebel groups.
Across all of these contexts, already-marginalized populations, including girls and young women, children and young people with disabilities, LGBTQI youth, and children and young people on the move, are at risk of further exploitation and abuse.
Children and young people across these five sample countries, and other crisis-affected contexts, have had to navigate an indefinite disruption of their learning. They have also lost an important space of support, stability, and protection as their surrounding environments grow increasingly uncertain.
Schools contribute to children and young people’s social, emotional, psychological, and physical health and wellbeing. In such challenging contexts, they can also provide physical protection and oversight, routines, and stability, as well as act as entry points for families to access services for health, nutrition, sanitation, and more specialized needs. Teachers and school personnel broadly provide a primary level of supervision and a first line of defense for children and young people at risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence.
The Alliance and INEE have collaborated to produce a new paper entitled, No Education, No Protection: What school closures under COVID-19 mean for children and young people in crisis-affected contexts, which highlights the negative impacts resulting from the combination of sudden school closures and the subsequent restriction of access to and availability of services, social networks, and other protective facilities for children and young people in crisis-affected contexts.
This report builds on earlier work in the Weighing up the risks: School closure and reopening under COVID-19 — When, Why, and What Impacts? policy paper and provides a comprehensive review of available literature and reporting on crisis-affected contexts, which is supplemented by consultations with key informants in five case contexts.
Overall, the report provides findings around three key impacts of pandemic-related school closures. First, it documents learning losses and impediments to inclusive and equitable quality education, demonstrating the wide variety in quality and provision of distance learning materials and the barriers – poverty, gender, and disability, etc. – which hinder access. Second, the report provides a catalogue of the negative impacts on child wellbeing and healthy development, indicating how closures have cut off access to programs for nutrition, specialized and rehabilitative care, and the mental health and psychosocial support services that support refugee children and young people coping with the aftermath of war and trauma, in particular. Third, the report provides comprehensive documentation for the amplified child protection risks and harms experienced by children and young people, demonstrating that the home environment is not necessarily one of safety and security. Finally, the report offers evidence-based recommendations to respond and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 school closures and to prepare for future shocks.
Today, as governments grapple with decisions to re-open schools amongst ongoing spikes and the spread of variants, we argue that the school environment be understood as a protective mechanism and essential service to ensure child and young adult wellbeing. As such, decision-makers must balance the public health prerogatives that may require school closures with the short- and long-term consequences this will have for children and young people. In addressing the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and looking ahead to future disease outbreaks or emergencies, policymakers must ensure that children and young people remain squarely at the center of decision-making.
The views expressed in this blog are the authors’ own.
Dr Leanne Cameron is an independent researcher whose previous projects include work with teacher professionalism in Rwanda, teacher training and curriculum development in Mexico, Sri Lanka, and throughout East Africa, and program development with resettled refugees in the United States. She is the principal author of No Education, No Protection.