As students in Kenya were waiting for the government to announce when schools would re-open from a longer than usual April school holidays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were asked to stay home for an additional four-week period.
The situation is the same in many other countries. Across the African continent, an estimated 297 million students have been affected by school closures as a result of the pandemic.
Globally, school closures due to COVID-19 have affected 1.29 billion students in 186 countries, which is 73.8 per cent of the world’s student population, according to the UN Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said recently.
Despite the challenges of limited access to internet connectivity, electricity or computers, countries are keeping learning active through various remote learning methods such as radio and television programmes, on addition to online platforms and social media.
In Egypt, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa and others, a number of schools and universities have moved some of their programmes to online platforms and have encouraged students to get connected.
The University of Ghana, for example, has trained its lecturers on how to put together online classes, while negotiating with telecom companies to grant free internet data, usually capped at 5G, for the students.
Victoria, 21, one of the millions of young people in Ghana impacted by school closures said: “I stay connected, getting myself busy with online lectures, having interactions with friends.
Victoria told UNICEF that she avoids crowded places and prefers to stay safe at home. “I also try to learn new things I haven’t done before – getting used to cooking, reading more books. Sometimes dancing if I have to, just to take off the stress and not feel very bored at home.”
In Nigeria and Morocco, the governments have created online repositories with education materials for teachers and parents, while the Rwanda education board has set up a dedicated website to support learning and provide educational content, as well as assessment tests. The website also enables teachers and parents to communicate.
However, due to low internet connection, expensive data and an urban-rural digital divide, online classes alone are unable to cater for all students. This creates the risk of leaving millions of students in Africa behind. In sub-Saharan Africa, UNESCO says 89 per cent of learners do not have access to household computers and 82 per cent lack internet access.
At the launch in March of the Global Coalition for Education, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “We are working together to find a way to make sure that children everywhere can continue their education, with special care for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.”
The UNESCO and UNICEF-led initiative of international organizations, civil society and private sector partners aims to ensure that learning continues. It will help countries mobilize resources and implement innovative and context-appropriate solutions to provide learning remotely by leveraging on hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches.
Countries are increasingly also promoting remote learning through traditional mass communication tools such as radio, and sometimes television. Radio’s wide reach and relatively low need for technical know-how makes its deployment faster and easier than scaling up internet connections.
With assistance from UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank and others, countries are quickly scaling up their radio and TV programmes or launching new initiatives.
For example, Ghana’s public broadcasters have rekindled dormant programmes on tv and radio for high school students. Similar programmes are running in Madagascar and Côte d’Ivoire.
In Senegal, the government’s efforts are encapsulated in a catchy slogan: “Ecole fermée, mais cahiers ouverts,” meaning “school is closed but learning goes on."
Radio Okapi, an UN-sponsored radio network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), launched Okapi Ecole (Okapi School) - a twice-daily remote learning programme for primary, secondary and vocational school students.
In Rwanda, UNICEF is working with the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency to produce and air nationwide basic literacy and numeracy classes. UNICEF identified more than 100 radio scripts from around the world focusing on basic literacy and numeracy that could be adapted to align with Rwanda’s school curriculum. The same support is being provided to Malawi.
In Côte d'Ivoire, UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Education on a ‘school at home’ initiative that includes taping lessons to be aired on national TV.
Looking beyond COVID-19, the Association of African Universities (AAU) sees an opportunity for local universities to explore expanding “technology-based platforms for teaching, learning and research.” Still, challenges such as network infrastructure, data prices and access to adequate digital equipment will need to be addressed for this to be a continent-wide success.