With a third lockdown in England, millions of pupils are, once again, out of school. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic, 1.54 billion students in 185 different countries have been pushed out of academic institutions and often de facto deprived of their right to education. According to the UNESCO indeed, nearly 90% of the world’s learners have been affected. These developments challenge the right to Education in an unprecedented manner while 2020 also ironically celebrated the 60th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the first international legally binding instrument covering this very right to education extensively. This landmark treaty encompasses States’ obligations to ensure free and compulsory education, promotes equality of educational opportunity and prohibits all forms of discrimination. The parties to the Convention have to enforce the right to education as a human right for all throughout life. This principle has been restated in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the UN Global Education Agenda 2030.
Access, Privacy and Security
While no clear scientific data is available on the sanitary risk of keeping schools open, their closure puts children and teenagers in great danger.
First, there is now ample evidence that access to knowledge has been denied to millions of students for distance learning was either not available or simply not accessible due to poor or inexistent Internet connection. In India, the suicide of a Kerala teenage girl who was unable to attend online classes because she did not have access to the internet, or a television has made the headlines and triggered students protest. Most schools have been shut across the country since the Indian government locked down its 1.3 billion people on 25th March 2020.
Online learning is not only discriminatory, it also poses great challenges in terms of privacy. From tracking of students’ activity by private corporations for commercial purposes to sharing and monitoring of data and surveillance, children and teenagers are exposed to multiple risks some of which are not even acknowledged nor truly comprehended by schools and teachers alike. Under the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, children have the right to freedom of expression (article 13) as well as to privacy (article 16) (UNICEF, 1990). These rights are denied when hastily engaging with online platforms deprived of ethical and legal guarantees.
Lastly, as demonstrated during the past few months, schools’ closures have exposed the most vulnerable to greater risks. In shutting down schools, governments break children’s protective shield against violence and hunger (BBC, 2020). Girls are particularly at risk with cases of prostitution, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), unwanted pregnancies, and forced marriage on the rise since the beginning of the Pandemic (UN, 2020). According to the UNESCO, over 11 million girls may not go back to school after the COVID-19 crisis. The Pandemic has worsened gender based violence. These very alarming figures threaten decades of reforms and progresses towards gender equality. As to hunger, the recent UK debate over free school meals has showed that developing countries’ pupils were not the only one concerned with access to nutritious food.
The need to (Re)Open Schools for Peace, Development and Democracy
Technology and innovation in learning do not always present opportunities for quality and equality. Often, they only widen the class and gender gaps in endangering students’ present and future. Disparities have exploded all over the world and the sufferings of the most vulnerable are nothing but greater. Not to mention that children with special educational needs and disabilities have simply been left aside (UK Parliament Report, 2020). Students are not a menace, but uneducated human being might well become one.
Having billions of students out of school is unacceptable. It threatens long term goals for peace, development and democracy. Only open schools can provide equal access to quality education. This year, on Monday 25 January 2021, the United Nation will launch its ‘Recover and Revitalize Education for the COVID-19 Generation’ campaign. It is ample time to pledge for schools reopening all over the world for the long-term consequences are much greater than the short-term sanitary gains.
BBC (2020) Free school meals: Mother’s ‘sadness’ at ‘mean’ food parcel. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55641740
UK Parliament Report (2020) Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full report. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmwomeq/1050/105007.htm
UN (2020) COVID-19 worsening gender-based violence, trafficking risk, for women and girls. Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1078812
UNICEF (1990) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights/