I met Ibu Fathima (name changed) on a hot day in a small village, in North Sumatra, where she was tending her half-hectare farm. "I go and work as a labor in the neighboring farm as soon as I finish the work on my farm," she said with a smile. As a single mother, she also looks after the household and nurtures her two children.
When I asked why she is working so hard and what she wants to accomplish in life, her answer is spontaneous: "I want my children to get educated and achieve great things in life".
I remembered Ibu Fathima as I think of the millions of children who must miss school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools remain closed, many children, especially from the poor and marginalized communities, might give up on education permanently. A recent report from Save the Children, a global charity, calls it as an 'unprecedented global education emergency.’ Children from rural households in particular will be the worst affected, as four out of five who are living under extreme poverty live in rural areas.
For millions of rural children in the developing world, schools are the most promising pathway to productive careers, well-paying jobs, and ladder of social progress. Subsistence farmers' educated children increase the living standards of their families that their farming parents only could dream of.
But COVID-19 has given a debilitating blow to this crucial socioeconomic ladder. Save the Children report says that "deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year, with millions more falling behind in learning."
Among the 40 countries which the report classified as moderate to extremely high-risk of children permanently dropping out of school, almost all are from developing countries in Africa and Asia. It seems rural communities are aware of this challenge. A survey by Enveritas, a global sustainability platform, conducted among coffee-growing smallholders in three continents found that COVID-19 impact on access to education is one of the greatest concerns for smallholders in many countries.
The economic and social consequences of children dropping out of school are vast. The World Bank estimates that if "schools remain closed for five months, pupils will forgo US$10 trillion of future earnings in today's money." Also, the world would see "the first potential reversal in global child poverty trends since the late 1990s."
Rural children will face further challenges besides losing education and poverty. Economic hardships may force them to work in farms for a living, which may compromise their health, safety, and, above all, the sense of self-worth.
Adolescent girls face increased risk "of gender-based violence, early pregnancy or child marriage, trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty, and denied the chance to fulfill their potential," according to Save the Children report.
In many countries, school feeding programs are also social safety nets for the children from poor households; school closures will deprive many children of this publicly provided food.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the quality of education in many developing countries had scope for improvement. Hardly any country from developing Asia and Africa is on the top 30 in the Program for International Assessment (PISA), a global test conducted in nearly 80 nations to assess 15-year-old students' academic performance on mathematics, science and reading.
Dismal school attendance of teachers and students is a constant challenge for policymakers in the developing world. Even for the students who regularly make it to school, presence is often not equal to learning. Hiring good teachers in rural areas is hard; teacher training in evolving pedagogy is rare.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. As the school closures increased, the world quickly adapted to web platforms such as Zoom as a substitute for classrooms. But rural children are woefully underequipped to embrace such tools. Functional internet connectivity is still a far cry in many rural areas. Even in areas where there is internet connectivity, it is hard for parents, who often have little education, to help their children use technology as a means of learning. Also, many parents in rural areas cannot afford computers or smartphones that are needed to participate in online classes. All of these can impact children and let them fall further behind their better-off peers.
Policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses should prioritize interventions to make sure rural children are not missing out on education. COVID-related cash transfer programs can be tied to parents' readiness to educate their children. Children who are currently out of school due to the pandemic should be taken care of.
Research shows that when children spend any significant time out of school, they tend to forget some of what they have already learnt. So prolonged educational breaks for rural children — while their urban peers catching up on Zoom classrooms — will undermine many bright minds. We must ensure that vulnerable children receive the necessary support and tools for distance education.
Looking at this challenge from another perspective, this is also an opportunity to overhaul education and promote digital learning in rural areas. Many other sectors have seen such pivot towards digital since the pandemic started. McKinsey, a global consulting firm, recently reported that consumer and business digital adoption vaulted five years forward in a matter of around eight weeks due to COVID-19.
Education systems serving poor and marginalized children need such reckoning. Carefully designed policy interventions to promote hybrid learning—classroom lessons coupled with learning from digital platforms— is a promising option.
If there is a moment for political leaders and stakeholders to come together and show determination in the betterment of the marginalized, this is it. We will never have a more opportune time. The world will eventually find a cure for COVID-19. But a child missing education now will be disadvantaged for years to come.
The writer manages the Asia operations for Enveritas, a New York-based non-profit. The views expressed are his own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.