Come together, now!
by Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education
We live in times of disruption and uncertainty but this time reference is not made to the digital revolution but to a global pandemic that virtually every country is struggling to contain.
Back in 2015, Bill Gates warned in a prescient Ted talk that the greatest risk of a global catastrophe comes in the shape of a highly infectious virus, warning that we were not ready to fight it.
It is chilling to listen to his words today, six years later, as cities are in lockdown, people in confinement and every day is a struggle to save lives, with public health systems in some of the world’s most advanced economies stretched to the limits – and even more so, to a dramatic extent, in fragile countries.
Beyond devices – building resilience of the human fabric
No one could ever have predicted that in 2020, more than half the world’s student population – 1.2 billion children and youth – would be forced to stay away from schools because of a virus.
This is simply unprecedented in history.
In the over 120 countries where schools have closed, every family is affected. The pressures on students separated from their peers, parents, caregivers, teachers and educators are incalculable.
Education systems are already falling short of being inclusive, of empowering students with 21st century skills and giving teachers a fair deal – let alone having the capacity to go virtual.
Now, governments are racing to keep schooling afloat through alternative channels. Every education minister is seeking the most adapted distance learning solutions, ranging from radio and television to virtual classrooms.
But the challenge goes well beyond that of devices, platforms, contents and connectivity – it is one about the resilience of the human fabric, emotional support and care for the most vulnerable and fragile.
As an international community, we cannot let this crisis accentuate inequalities.
When UNESCO invited education ministers to join a virtual meeting on responses to Covid-19, over 70 countries signed up on short notice – ranging from those where all schools were closed such as China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Italy and Iran, to others putting prevention measures in place, including Mexico, Columbia and Mauritius.
The spontaneous interest manifested the urgency to learn from each other and share solutions under pressure.
Only a multilateral platform can allow this.
Since launching a curated list of distance learning solutions, countless individuals, civil society organizations and companies have stepped forward to freely share their know-how and platforms. An international community of practice has come together, sharing approaches, expertise and challenges through a dedicated series of webinars.
Again, only a multilateral platform can allow this.
This spirit of international solidarity – one that speaks to the value that education carries – now has to translate into tangible cooperation to support countries in their responses.
The role of multilateralism: learn from experiences and take them to scale
Today’s global health emergency occurs as an additional 260 million children and youth were not even in school before the crisis, while millions who were in school were not even learning the basics. Many children who were in fragile situation before the crisis, or about to drop out, will certainly never set a foot back in schools after the crisis.
If this crisis fails to convince everyone to invest in stronger and more inclusive education systems – nothing ever will.
This is a time for the global community to rally around inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning – the goal to which every government committed five years ago as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – to leave no one behind.
This is the time to share data and solutions and connect this wealth of knowledge, capacity and talent, guided by the principles of inclusion and equity.
This is the time to come together not only to ensure that learning doesn’t stop, but to invest in the transformational power that education carries for individuals, communities and societies. Let us not forget the impact of education on fighting poverty and inequalities, on empowering girls and women, and on improving health because well-being and prevention require knowledge.
Knowledge sharing is already taking place – and is increasing rapidly. UNESCO networks, centers and institutes around the world are fully mobilized and organize webinars, seminars, recommendations and knowledge sharing. While there is much to learn from the wealth of these experiences, the shared challenge is to take them to scale under the pressure of time – and not to deepen human and digital divides.
As part of its responsibility to lead on education, UNESCO is launching a global coalition, bringing partners together to support country responses. The Coalition is driven by the conviction that investment in remote learning should both mitigate the immediate disruption caused by Covid-19 as well as establish approaches to develop more open and flexible education systems for the future.
Every night at 8 pm in Paris, the city of UNESCO’s headquarters where I live, inhabitants flock to their windows clapping to honour the courage of health workers.
I join them for this ritual, thinking also of the millions of children, adolescents, teachers and parents coping each day with the new reality of home schooling – their determination to share education and keep learning deserves our respect, recognition and above all, support.
We don’t know how long this pandemic last. But we know with certainty that we must deal with the consequences today – boldly, innovatively and together.
This is the first in a series of articles UNESCO will be posting on the Covid-19 education response.