A Palestinian teacher, at right, wears a protective face mask on the first day of class of the new school year at the United Nations-run elementary school at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, August 8, 2020.

Top UN education official: Pandemic causing rethink of global learning

The World's host Marco Werman speaks with Stefania Giannini, the UN's assistant director-general for education about the impact of the coronavirus on schools and students.

The World

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the world faces a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Guterres had a stark warning about the disruption to education that could "waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities."

Every country is grappling with difficult questions as the summer comes to a close. Balancing public health and reopening schools — at a time when many families are suffering economically — has become an endless debate across the globe.

The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Stefania Giannini, the UN's assistant director-general for education about the situation.

Marco Werman: What impact could school closures have on this generation of students? What is the UN saying about all of this? And what's the best strategy?

Stefania Giannini: The scale of this crisis is already huge: 1 billion students and children are out of school because of COVID-19 today and 100 countries have yet to announce a date for schools to be open. So, I think that it's really a huge risk of losing an entire generation. As we could see from the very beginning of school closures, the longer the schools remain closed, the higher the risk of increasing inequalities and learning loss.

As to those increased inequalities and learning loss you're talking about, what groups are most vulnerable from missing out on their education and why?

Well, the most vulnerable and fragile components of the education community — I can mention children with disabilities, where we could see from the beginning that moving from the traditional classroom to the virtual ones is not everywhere a guarantee of making the best way to address their specific special needs for education. It's about girls — we can see from other crises, like Ebola, for instance, that we can have increasing numbers of dropouts for girls. We can have increasing numbers of early pregnancy. And of course, it's about refugees and migrants and displaced students, where the situation of learning is already very much complicated.

Let's look at how different countries are approaching this, starting here in the US. We're still seeing a rising number of cases, and the first day of school is fast approaching. In fact, states like Mississippi and Georgia have already opened classrooms and face new infections. And now students are in quarantine again. What do you recommend for the US?

I think that the recommendations we find in the policy brief can work very well for the US as well. This is not a national crisis. This is a global one. And there is no national solution. We can take measures that can work on the basis of some general principles and mention them. The first is about reopening schools when safe to do so. And I think that after the green light from health authorities, schools need to put measures in place for safe return. And it's about also targeting the students who are hardest to reach. We mentioned before the most vulnerable components of the student communities. And it's absolutely important that, also in the US, this specific target can be considered as the first priority: reopening schools.

Mexico, interestingly, has decided to not reopen schools — indefinitely. They'll be shifting a lot of the education efforts to the internet and public broadcasting  teaching on TV, basically, because nearly 95% of families in Mexico have televisions. What do you think of that decision?

I think that hybrid learning, as it's defined, means putting together radio channels, TV channels and e-learning platforms  where you can use it and have connectivity  is something that can work. We are assisting countries like these, and we are in contact with Mexico's authorities as well. I can mention other countries like Senegal, for instance, where this blended learning is working a bit as students continue to learn it. On the other side, let me say, that there are some dimensions of learning and teaching that cannot be replaced easily.

So, we know teachers and students are worried. Parents are really worried because they see this monumental task of teaching their kids falling to them, throwing them an extra duty that you just can't phone in. So, for parents staring at this disheartening reality, what is your advice?

Parents became a bit, the main actors of the process  suddenly. And this is another interesting component, right, that you have to take into account. And let me say that maybe in the future, there is a lot of room for rethinking the future of education, which is right now in the present. Also, including better, more communities and families, first starting from parents. Of course, it's about rethinking the space of learning. It's also rethinking the time of learning, which is no more, maybe confined, restricted, to some hours in the morning. So, I see in this sense an interesting innovation, which can be important for rethinking and transforming education.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.