December 22, 2020
Since the first school closures in March, education insecurity and learning loss have been at the forefront of national conversations, with a daily onslaught of headlines proclaiming the doom and gloom of our current reality: Students Have Lost Months of Learning in the Pandemic (TIME); Parents worried about learning loss in remote education (Education Week); ‘A lost generation’: Surge of research reveals students sliding backward, most vulnerable worst affected (The Washington Post); As COVID-19 closes schools again, education loss may hurt millions of children for years (USA Today).
Despite the year’s immense challenges, educators, school administrators, parents/caregivers and students are doing their best under these precarious new circumstances. We’ve seen unparalleled ingenuity from teachers as they strive to reach and engage with their learners remotely. We’ve seen parents and caregivers juggling full-time jobs and assistant teaching for their remote learners at home. We’ve seen kindergarteners mastering Zoom so they can continue learning to build a foundation for future educational success.
While these challenges have felt, and continue to feel, insurmountable, our education system, albeit heavily flawed, will eventually return to a new normal. In-person instruction will ultimately resume, and our learners will be back in school full time. And, hopefully, this new normal will bring an education system that is an evolved, better version of itself after we learn from the challenges of the past year.
The right to education has been catapulted to the global center stage amid the pandemic. However, long before we had ever heard of COVID-19, the global community was in the middle of an ongoing education crisis spanning decades. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirmed education as a human right on Dec. 10, 1948, many students experience a much different reality.
The most recent UNESCO data from 2018 reports that more than 258 million K-12 children were not attending school before coronavirus. For perspective, globally, that means 59 million primary school-age students were not attending school in 2018. That is 2 million more than the total number of enrolled PK-12 students in the entire U.S.
Following the United Nations’ formal commitments to education with Millennium Development Goal 2 (2000-2015) and Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal 4 (2015-2030), we have made massive strides to make access to quality education universal. We have progressed from nearly 100 million primary school-age children out of school in 2000, to 59 million in 2018, increasing gender parity along the way.
However, we have a lot of work to do, and it’s now evident we will not achieve SDG4 by 2030. Each day, the right to education is threatened by a multitude of barriers, including global and domestic conflict, financial insecurity, physical displacement, natural disasters, child labor, gender, racial biases, extreme poverty, school violence, and now, COVID-19. A poignant example of this challenge is education access for refugees. Currently, 48% of school-age refugees across the globe are out of school. Lack of access to education, paired with the trauma of displacement, has created a grave reality for millions of refugees around the world. The global community owes it to these learners to do better and make good on the promise set forth in the UDHR. Education is a human right.
After experiencing fears over learning loss and the potential developmental impact of missing out on school here on U.S. soil, will we look toward the future of global education with a different, COVID-19-affected perspective? Will we approach the global commitment to those 258 million out-of-school children with renewed vigor? Will COVID-19 serve as a catalyst for global action on education access? If anything good is to come out of the trauma of 2020, the answers to these questions will be yes.
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