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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.