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Schools are reopening, here are our priorities for rural education looking ahead

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced over 168 million children out of school during closures. Almost two years later, countries like Uganda are opening their gates again meaning millions of students are back and safe in the classroom. Many of these students are now behind in the curriculum, and have been exposed to child labour, early marriage, exploitation or other serious child protection concerns, particularly in rural areas.

This international education day, it is time to start thinking about how we can recover and support children to catch up and remain in school.

Based on decades of experience working to eliminate child labour in diverse agricultural settings, ECLT identifies three education priorities after COVID-19:

  • (1) bridging the digital divide;

  • (2) scaling up community-based literacy and numeracy programmes; and

  • (3) making teaching and learning materials affordable and accessible.

Scaling up community-based literacy and numeracy programmes

Community-based literacy and numeracy programmes address reading and mathematics learning inside and outside the classroom. The programmes involve literate facilitators who are identified in the community, provided with training, and linked to the local school. The trained facilitators are equipped with a mobile blackboard and learning materials. They convene reading camps – a place in the community where children can go after school and on weekends for educational support. Children are supported to read, learn maths and do their homework after school. The facilitators are in constant contact with the formal school system, thus ensuring that what students learn at home is aligned with what they are learning at school. Increasing the number of trained facilitators and scaling up community-based literacy and numeracy schemes can potentially reduce the number of students per facilitator while ensuring that social distancing is observed. These programmes are also accessible to out of school children, ensuring that child labour is reduced and no one is left behind.

Our research in early grade literacy and numeracy shows that pupils who have someone who assists them to read at home perform better at school. However, many parents in rural areas cannot read or write. Community literacy and numeracy programmes also fill this gap and should be expanded in the education system after the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure learning continues even in the event of other disruptive disasters.

Making teaching and learning materials affordable and accessible

Affordability and availability of textbooks remains a persistent challenge in developing countries, especially in rural schools. Numerous studies have identified failures in each link of the “textbook chain’, from development to manufacturing, procurement, financing, distribution, and effective use—which result in high costs and low availability. The shortages of teaching and learning materials undermine better learning; a situation which is exacerbated by disaster-induced school closures. Several actions by governments and development agencies can improve affordability and accessibility of learning and teaching materials going forward. First, investments should be made in electronic teaching and learning materials such as e-books. These materials can be printed and distributed at low cost before and during a disaster, enabling pupils to have learning materials at home. Second, mobile libraries should be scaled up in rural areas so that children have access to relevant learning materials even when the schools are closed. Finally, governments should assume responsibility for content development and retain full copyright, making reprinting cheaper.

Bridging the digital divide

According to UNESCO, half of the total number of learners that were kept out of the classroom by the COVID-19 pandemic – some 826 million students – do not have access to a household computer and 43% (706 million) have no internet at home. The situation is worse in developing countries. For example, 89% of learners in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers and 82% lack internet access, according to UNESCO. This reality creates a digital divide, exemplified by millions of children in rural communities that are left behind and face increasing risk of child labour.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us that during a crisis the key alternative to attending school in online learning platforms. As natural disasters become more frequent and the world faces more and more challenges, bridging the digital divide is key to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education.

Bridging the digital divide in the post-Covid era calls for governments and development partners to invest in increasing access to electricity and solar power in rural areas, (re)training teachers and learners in basic ICT skills, developing online learning material and digital resources, investing in telecommunications infrastructure and building systems with strong offline functionalities.

For further reading on policy and practical responses to COVID-19, we recommend the following resources:

*updated 17 January 2022