Since the first reported case of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 emerged in December 2019, the world has been struggling to contain a pandemic that has challenged an entire modern human civilization, and one of the major sectors being hit is Education.
UNESCO has reported that in 138 countries, 1.37 billion students have been affected by the pandemic and all around the world, countries have been presented with a challenge and responsibility to redesign schooling that benefits everyone.
However, with everyone’s attention on containing the pandemic, millions of the world’s poorest children are being left behind.
Education is among one of the basic human rights and it shouldn’t lead to disparity of any form, which unfortunately has become the case during the ongoing pandemic.
According to data provided by the Ministry of the Education, only 13% of the population in Nepal can afford internet facilities, which is alarming because that means that only 13% of the population in a developing country like Nepal has access to proper education at a time when distance learning is the only safe way to learn.
Similarly, given the fact that only 55% of households in Nepal have access to the internet, according to data provided by the Ministry of Information and Communications (2020), the disparity between private and public education institutions has now been replaced by a more prominent disparity between students of different socioeconomic statuses; between those who can access and afford internet versus those who cannot.
So in a country where the poor do not have the privilege of prioritizing education, the silent shift to virtual medium of learning is reverberating class privilege.
According to statistics provided by the World Bank, the Covid-19 pandemic has kept an estimated 8.2 million Nepali children away from their classrooms since March. In order to combat this and to ensure education for secondary level students through distance learning, UNESCO has started a mid-day radio education program called ‘Radio Paathshala’ in collaboration with the Education Development Directorate of the Bagmati Province and Prime FM radio. The program covers thirteen districts in the Basmati province.
Additionally, a coalition of teachers, educational journalists, non-governmental organizations, local governments and local radio stations, have launched a distance-learning radio program called Radio Schools to reach more than 100,000 children between the grades of one and ten.
However, not every student has been able to benefit from these programs and initiatives. According to a survey conducted by UNICEF, 29% of the students have access to distance learning, but only half are able to utilize such resources. Only 12% of Nepali children are taking classes online, or through these radio/tv programs. UNICEF has concluded that the continued loss of access to education in low-income families is most likely to have irreversible negative effects on the country’s economy and adversely affect its potential to ensure equitable and sustainable development.
The pandemic is bound to impact education in more severe ways such as causing an increase in dropout rates. According to a survey conducted by Room to Read- a non-profit aimed towards improving literacy and gender equality in the developing world- 49% of girls in Nepal were found to be at risk of not returning to school.
The World Bank recently organized an Ed Tech session to discuss remote learning solutions for Nepal, where the digital divide is high. Participants showed enthusiasm for the various technologies presented, such as the radio, mobile phone, television, and other online options. However, it all comes down to the issue of accessibility.
The closure of schools has exposed a fragility in Nepal’s education system and widened the country’s inequality gap.
In addition to leaving many of its students behind, the Nepali education system has also created dissatisfaction especially among students who are facing uncertainty over their school’s internal assessments and constantly shifting exam dates due to the continuous rise in Covid-19 cases. These setbacks have led students to further distrust their education system.
Students attending school at the higher secondary and undergraduate level, waiting to take their final exams, are the ones who seem to be most affected by this crisis, since the government has not yet come up with a proper agenda on how to organize and follow through with the exams.
Ultimately, education should be the nation’s priority, and not something that is overlooked by the government. The International Commission on the Futures of Education has stated that now is the time for public deliberation, democratic accountability and intelligent collective action.
It is the government’s obligation to address this issue because as a state, Nepal cannot forget how hard it fought for democracy at a time when education was a privilege given to only a few. Hence, the moral should be to not move backwards.
Decisions made from now onwards should be based on a humanistic vision of education, development and human rights, and more value should be given to education as a force for change.
Smriti Shrestha is a writer at Kathmandu Pati English covering politics. She’s a student of political leadership at YWPLI, WomenLEAD. Find her LinkedIn as Smriti Shrestha.