Urgent need to secure learning for children across South Asia: UNICEF

Staff Reporter

To ensure children in Bhutan continue to learn at home, UNICEF Bhutan is working with the education ministry so that education continuity is implemented in the form of Education in Emergencies (EinE), through the national broadcaster, Bhutan Broadcasting Service.

A committee has also been formed to oversee the quality of lessons being broadcast through national television. Around 170,263 children from classes PP to XII are not attending schools today due to Covid-19 in Bhutan, according to UNICEF.

The government has endorsed the EinE implementation guidelines and circulated nationwide. The guidelines serve as standard operating procedures for all that have a stake in education continuity.

UNICEF is also supporting the efforts that the Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) and Special Education Needs (SEN) divisions with the education ministry are making to ensure that the learning and wellbeing of children in their earliest years are not overlooked during the pandemic.

A press release from UNICEF Bhutan stated that building on this initiative, UNICEF and the ECCD and SEN divisions are currently developing parenting education materials in Dzongkha, to distribute directly to preschool-aged children and their families. “Contents of these parenting materials will also be developed into animations to capitalize on platforms in social media, television, radio and mobile phone applications, the press release stated.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative, Dr Will Parks, said UNICEF remains committed to supporting the government in ensuring every child and young person has access to inclusive quality education. “We are working closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure no child is left behind in accessing education and that they are able to continue their learning at home,” he said.

In the South Asia region, 430 million children are affected by school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these students are now in danger of dropping out of the education system. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the South Asia region had a chronic education crisis with 95 million school-age children out of school, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia in Kathmandu, Nepal cautions that vulnerable and hard-to-reach children may never return to school if they get further behind due to not being reached with alternative ways to learn during school closures.

Although Covid-19’s impact on the region’s schoolchildren has been mitigated in the short-term by creative approaches to term breaks and examinations, UNICEF is calling on countries across South Asia to urgently develop contingency plans for continued education at home in preparation for possibly longer closures. This means implementing plans to continue education through a mix of radio, television and internet-based platforms, as well as the home delivery of printed learning materials for those who do not have ready access to communication technology.

“We are concerned that prolonged school closures could hit girls and the most vulnerable, including those with disabilities the hardest. Girls are often obliged to take care of household chores and look after siblings. We are also concerned about the psychological impact on children of increasing incidents of domestic violence during lockdowns,” said the Regional Education Adviser at UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia, Jim Ackers.

While most countries in the global north are continuing education at home through online learning, South Asia faces additional challenges due to limited connectivity, according to UNICEF.

Only 33 percent of the people in the region have access to internet. Access to both radio and television is limited in some parts of the region. For example, only 35 percent of rural Nepal has access to television. Children who currently do home learning can also find it hard to get the necessary help if parents are illiterate or did not complete their own education.

UNICEF, the press release stated, is working to support governments in the region to ensure that children can continue with their education at home in partnership with other agencies. Most countries in South Asia have received external funding for this purpose, including through the Global Partnership for Education and bilateral partners. Some countries are rolling out innovative approaches to education.

“The coronavirus has turned into a complex emergency that threatens children and young people in many ways – including their right to learn,” said the Regional Director of UNICEF in South Asia, Jean Gough. “We need to see urgent action across the region to ensure that children’s futures are not compromised.”