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COVID, child labour and education: where do we go from here?

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, 70% of the global student population has been affected by school closures. This has a significant effect on children’s learning and academic performance. But schools represent more than just a place to learn. For many children, school is a critical safe space keeping them away from vulnerabilities they might be facing at home or in society, like child labour in both homes and farms.

In development contexts, schools play an important role by equipping children with the skills they will need as an adult to access decent work opportunities and contribute to poverty reduction. For families who struggle to make ends meet, often school meals provide children with nutritional meals to help them stay healthy and grow.

To better understand the impact that COVID restrictions are having on education, we spoke with Dr Elizabeth Meke, a Senior Research Fellow working with the Centre for Educational Research and Training at the University of Malawi.

Hello Dr Meke, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you please give us a summary of how education in Malawi is being affected by COVID-19?

COVID 19 has affected the education sector very much. Schools in Malawi were closed due to COVID 19 on 23rd March 2020 with an aim to protect learners, students, teachers and parents from the pandemic and support national efforts in the fight against the spread of the Coronavirus. There is no definite hope for reopening the schools in the nearer future as the number of infected persons keep rising by the day. Nevertheless, the ministry of Education is currently engaging stakeholders to discuss possibilities of reopening and what measures to put in place if they decide to reopen. Closing schools meant that learners and students are staying home thereby not accessing education for a prolonged period of time. This will definitely have a bearing on how both the learners and the teachers catch up when the schools open and how they will make up for the lost time. Much affected are the primary school learners in grade 8 and the secondary school students in Form 4 who were about to sit for their national exams when the schools closed. Learning at home in Malawi cannot be guaranteed due to so many problems ranging from technological to economic hiccups. Although the government is encouraging parents and guardians to support their children’s learning, this isn’t always possible because many parents are illiterate or are busy working and minding their daily businesses.

Side effects of the school closure have seen some children engaging in immoral behaviours as they are more often idle. We have heard from the local media of increased child marriages and pregnancies this time around and this means such children might not go back to school when things normalise. We have also heard of increased violence against the children in the homes. Child labour cannot be ruled out when the children are staying at home all the time.

What tools are in place to help children continue their learning at home?

There are online learning tools from the Government website. The Government has partnered with local network providers such as TNM to provide free / subsidized internet for learners and students who have the necessary gadgets access online learning materials from the government online platform for free. For children and families in rural areas who do not have access to technology, the Government has also set up a radio programme. There will also be printed materials which will be sent to schools and then the schools will distribute to learners in the rural villages.

What, in your opinion, is working well in the COVID response?

The biggest challenge we are facing is the lack of access, I think that the printed learning materials will really help learners and students in remote villages access education in this difficult time.

How do you think COVID could affect children’s learning in the long run?

Teachers might have to rush through the material so that students can catch up to where they should be in the curriculum. Because of this, some children might not do well and could be left behind. It will be a real challenge, I am hoping that there will be a mechanism which will really take into account the different learning abilities of learners and students in the classes. For sure, the academic calendar will be affected in one way or the other.

How is the lack of school impacting on children’s daily lives currently in Malawi?

Behaviour wise this certainly could be a problem. But also because they are sitting at home idle a lot of them will be left behind and many will end up losing out. Especially the girls, I am very worried about the girls. Some of them will end up dropping out of school, some might even end up getting married too young, and lots could end up in child labour in farms. Long periods of staying at home will really not be good for education that is for sure.

When it comes to COVID response and education, what do you think is important for organisations likes ECLT or Governments to know and to take into account?

I think it is particularly important for them to intensify messaging, there is a lot of misinformation out there particularly on social media platforms. Government and organisations need to clearly package their messages and properly reach out to everybody so that people are not misled with what is going round the social media. Most importantly, they should not forget also to reach out to the people with special needs in their COVID messaging and response. These should not just be about the disease itself but also about important behaviours that children and parents need to adopt to protect themselves from the effects of the pandemic.

When the schools open up we also need to think about how we can support teachers to make up for the lost time. There may be need for extra interventions to support children to catch up to where they should be in the academic year.

Where do we go from here?

It is evident that, whilst necessary to keep children and families healthy, school closures are impacting the lives of millions of children around the world during the Coronavirus outbreak. We have heard that radio programmes and printed materials are some solutions to keep children in rural communities learning, but thought also needs to be given to the long term impact of the pandemic on education continuity. How we can support children once schools open up again to catch up with where they should be in the curriculm and so that they leave school with the literacy and numeracy skills they will require in adulthood? Come back next week when we will consider education priorities in a post-COVID world.