Learning Interrupted: Education, COVID-19, and the Culture of Peace

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As many as 1.6 billion students worldwide have faced school closures this year or continue to face uncertainty about their education in the coming months due to COVID-19. What will be the long-term impact on these children and youth? And how will it affect social, political, and economic development? Already concerns have been raised that interrupted learning exacerbates inequalities of all kinds, including economic, gender, and nutritional inequalities. What can we do to mitigate these risks?

This global crisis and how to address it in alignment with the principles of the “culture of peace” was the subject of a September 10th virtual policy forum cosponsored by IPI and the Office of the President of the United Nations General Assembly.

In opening remarks, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, declared that the education sector “has been particularly destabilized by the pandemic. COVID-19 has robbed the world and disrupted learning opportunities of students around the world, particularly those in technologically disadvantaged regions.”

He noted that the world had already been lagging in fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number four, which is inclusive quality education, with one in three African children not finishing primary school and only 20 million of the 158 million in sub-Saharan Africa meeting minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. “Then came COVID-19, and the education of 1.6 billion children and youth, including those in refugee camps, took a hit. While learning continued in technologically advanced societies, students without access to digital connections either stayed at home while the pandemic lasted or relied on home-tutoring and parental guidance.”

Mr. Muhammad-Bande said that to promote and sustain the culture of peace, “governments must act proactively and creatively to address ongoing and future imbalances in access to quality education. It is important for education to be given primary consideration in all of our efforts to build back better and stronger, to ensure we truly leave no one behind.”

The concept of the culture of peace was introduced into the multilateral system in 1992 in a program of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In a series of resolutions and programs looking ahead to the twenty-first century, the UN called for a transition from the culture of war to a culture of peace. In 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration and Program of Action on a Culture of Peace. That program identified eight pillars of the culture of peace that are interrelated and interdependent, and the first of them was education.

Abdul Aziz Saud Al-Babtain, Director and Founder of the Al-Babtain Foundation, said  “COVID-19 has revealed our mutual need to work together and share knowledge, sciences, and researches, …to benefit from the common intellectual knowledge we share between us to find a medical cure for humanity.” He added, the mission was now to “go beyond the previous globalization model and start a new multilateral model of interdependence centrally based on the education of a culture of just peace.”

Rabab Fatima, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, said the pandemic and its effect on youth had driven home the cultural centrality of schools. “We realize that schools are simply and crucially places where we learn, but very much more than this, places where there is social protection, there is nutrition, there is health, and there is a social-first relationship with the rest of the world outside the family.”

The responsibility of the international community going forward, she said, was to avoid what the Secretary-General has called a “generational catastrophe.” She estimated that 24 million children from pre-primary school to university level, were at risk of dropping out of education altogether due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone. “A good majority may not be able to return to school for reasons ranging from poverty, child labor, and child marriage.” She cited figures showing that in the developing world, only 30% of people have access to online education. “It is imperative that the COVID response and recovery efforts include adequate measures and resources to ensure the right to education for all children. Both immediate and long-term response plans and programs must be planned and undertaken to address the disruptive situation in the education sector. The pandemic exposed the digital divide that hinders education for all.”

Ambassador Fatima proposed that “to make up for lost ground, we can leverage the focus of culture of peace on education, to review, innovate and restructure conventional education, including research and development.” She said the culture of peace could act as a “force multiplier in our pursuit, it could help bring back the much-needed inclusivity in pandemic response and SDG implementation.”

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), called the pandemic the “largest disruption in education since the creation of the UN system, and we can say, in history.” She said that a culture of peace is “intimately linked to a culture of inclusion. This is the starting point for educational recovery, pulling out all the stops to ensure that the most marginalized children return to school and learn in safe environments, with special attention to girls, with special attention to refugees in conflict situations.”

Mrs. Giannini said that “education should be a bulwark against inequality.” Accordingly, she said, the focus ought to be on investing in social and emotional skills like empathy, awareness, and a capacity to manage emotions and to develop positive relationships. “They must be mainstreamed throughout the education systems.”

To reorient education systems around the culture of peace, she asserted, students must be “wired to defend human rights, act for social justice and gender equality, and to take care of the environment. ”

Dr. Robert Jenkins, Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), pronounced this moment  “a once in a generation opportunity to reopen schools in a new way, to re-look at schools and the critical role they play and to support schools and education systems, to maximize the potential to transform learning that we have now in a new way.” He said the central question now with schools resuming was “how can we maximize the reopening process so that it has the most positive impact on peace that it could potentially have?”

Experience had taught him that speed was essential, Dr. Jenkins said. “ We have seen in previous school closures as a result of Ebola, the longer schools are closed, the more vulnerable children become, and the more risk there is of dropping out and never returning to their learning.”

He listed three key issues around reopening:

  • focusing on reaching the most vulnerable.
  • transforming the way learning is provided, recognizing that the world was experiencing a learning crisis before the pandemic.
  • meeting the emotional, social, nutritional, health, and protection needs of children.

He suggested that teachers were showing the way. “Teachers are better skilled now at recognizing the traumatic situation many children have faced with this disruption and enabling them to bridge back to school. There have been a lot of interventions at a country level around working with parents providing the education skills or ways of coaching their children and supporting their children, both on learning and preparing to bridge back to school.”

The central role of education in sustaining peace was more appreciated now than before, he argued. “I think there’s been an increased recognition of the importance of schools in communities, by parents, by decision makers. I also think there’s a recognition that we have an opportunity to reimagine how the front door is open in a school, and what happens behind that door.” As for the urgency of getting increased funding to support schooling, he said, “We in the education sector are ‘all hands on deck’ reemphasizing that.”

He particularly stressed the importance of “engagement,” repeating the word three times in sequence for emphasis. “Countries that have been most successful in reopening schools are those that had very significant engagement processes, investing heavily in communication.”

In answer to a question about whether there was data on whether remote online education can be effective at spurring personal and emotional development, he said, “My simple answer—and sadly it’s unsatisfactory— is that the evidence is mixed.” He said that “there are some very exciting innovations that are IT-enabled that do indeed target social and emotional health. The most successful are those IT tools that enable interaction, questioning, and engagement.”

Mrs. Giannini commented that one of the key lessons learned from the Ebola crisis was the crucial role of community and families “which usually we don’t consider within the constituency of education. There is a traditional boundary between the school community and what we find outside, including family and parents, especially in the north of the world, they are viewed as the counterparts and not part of the same mission.”

She concluded: “To summarize, some key words: engagement, solidarity, partnership. What we need now is to strongly work together. We are making a big effort on the international organization side, unprecedented, in my opinion, in terms of integrating all out competency and expertise in one common mission, which is about the continuity of learning. It’s about assuring education as a basic human right.”

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel moderated the discussion.