This blog was written by Dawit Tibebu Tiruneh, Research Associate at the REAL Centre, University of Cambridge and member of the RISE Ethiopia research programme. This blog is part of a series reflecting on the impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic on research work on international education and development.  It has also been published on the RISE programme blog, the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education website and Cambridge University Press.

There are major challenges around equitable access to learning for all children during the COVID-19 crisis. Most governments have now temporarily closed schools and universities to slow the spread of the virus. As of the first week of April 2020, UNESCO reported that 1.6 billion learners (nearly 9 out of 10 children) are out of school worldwide due to the school closures. In Africa, almost all the school children and university students are affected by the pandemic as of mid-March 2020. In Ethiopia, for example, schools have been closed from 16 March 2020, and nearly 25 million pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary-level learners are staying at home.

It is too early to fully understand how the COVID-19 school closures are affecting particularly disadvantaged children in low-income countries such as Ethiopia, but there are signs suggesting that it could have a lasting impact on increasing inequality. My observation over the past month in Ethiopia is that the less wealthy and digitally-illiterate families are, the further their children are left behind. There were already pre-COVID-19 inequalities in access to quality education between children in urban and rural localities, and children from parents with higher and lower socio-economic status. My fear is that COVID-19 school closures could further increase the inequalities between the advantaged and disadvantaged children.

The Ministry of Education in Ethiopia has been encouraging schools and parents to help all children continue to learn from home through remote learning. However, there are limited mechanisms in place to ensure that ALL children can continue to learn from home. Home-schooling is particularly challenging in low-income countries like Ethiopia because many parents have not themselves been to school and there is a lack of the necessary infrastructure to support remote learning.

What are the attempts to support home-schooling in Ethiopia?

Because the great majority of students in Ethiopia lack computers and Internet access, the Ministry of Education has recently advised primary school children to follow radio lessons, and secondary school children to follow television lessons that can be accessed from home through satellite television. Although radio and television lessons may work for some children in the urban areas, there is no clear evidence on how many parents in the rural areas have access to radios and satellite television. Given that more than 80% of the Ethiopian population lives in the rural areas with limited or no access to electricity, it is least likely that radio and television lessons would reach all primary and secondary school children in the rural areas. Even when radio and television lessons reach some of the rural children, it is unlikely that those children get sufficient support from their parents at home because their parents have never been to school.

Most private schools in urban localities are finding temporary solutions to continue teaching their students from a distance by uploading reading materials and assignments via Google Classroom and e-mail, and by using some social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Many private schools in major urban cities of Ethiopia such as Addis Ababa, Adama, Bahir Dar, Hawasa, and Mekelle are sending learning materials directly to parents’ WhatsApp or Telegram accounts, and the parents are helping their children to access the learning materials from their phones. On the contrary, there are no efforts by the public schools in urban and rural areas to keep their students learning from home. It is understandable that most of the public schoolteachers and parents have limited or no access to Internet connectivity, but most importantly the teachers lack the preparedness to work in such unprecedented circumstances. It is also worrying that we haven’t yet heard from schools and local governments in Ethiopia on their planning to address the diverse needs of children with disabilities during the school closures. We have many primary and secondary school children in Ethiopia with special educational needs, who may not benefit equally from the radio and television lessons.

How should schools and local governments respond during the COVID-19 crisis?

Public schools in urban areas need to devise strategies to try to reach as many children as possible during the school closures. I understand that public schools will have difficulties reaching all their students from a distance due to logistical and financial challenges, but the choice can’t be to do nothing, as this may worsen the existing inequalities between the rich and the poor. The local governments and school heads should try to establish communication lines between public school teachers and parents in order to follow up closely as children try to learn from home, and to offer some advice on appropriate hygiene practices and social distancing.

In addition, public schools in both rural and urban areas need some support at this critical time from the local governments, universities in their localities, and other ongoing national programmes such as Productive Safety Net and One WaSH National programme. Given that public school teachers, like everyone else, are now living in a stressful situation due to the pandemic, professionals in local universities need to provide them with some training on how to support learning of their students from home in these difficult times. Unfortunately, Ethiopia does not have the infrastructure in place to support online learning, but it is possible to consider low-tech approaches. Because nearly all the children may have their textbooks with them at home, teachers could send guiding questions and additional reading materials that may encourage the most marginalized children to read their textbooks. Teachers could also continuously contact parents through phone and enquire how their children are coping with the radio and television lessons and the kind of support parents are trying to offer to their children.

It is also vital to emphasize that many disadvantaged children such as girls from low income families and from rural areas can be at a higher risk of sexual exploitation, early marriage and forced labour. I’m also afraid that both boys and girls in most rural areas may be forced to be fully engaged during the school closures to support their parents in farming and livestock herding. School teachers in collaboration with district and kebele education officers need to keep close contact with parents to make sure that children are safe at home during the school closures and trying to learn as much as possible. I hope such efforts can help address the challenges related to the equitable provision of education for all children during the present COVID-19 crisis.

How should the school system respond to the post-COVID-19 period?

  1. Introducing evidence-based interventions to recover lost learning

Because of the lack of required support during the COVID-19 school closures, it could take a very long time for children from low-income and illiterate parents to fully recover their lost learning when they are back to school. The school system should therefore design and implement some evidence-based interventions that aim to facilitate the recovery of the lost learning when schools reopen. For example, schools may design some catch-up courses particularly for those disadvantaged children.

  1. Putting strategies in place to ensure children return to school when they reopen

Children from low-income families are at a double disadvantage during the COVID-19 school closures: interruption to class time and economic uncertainty. There is some new evidence coming out that the economic impact of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa is going to be devastating. It is highly likely that some children from low-income parents could decide to work as daily labourers to support their families economically and may never return to school when schools reopen. Parents from rural localities may be reluctant to send their children back to school because they may prefer their children to continue to support them in farming and livestock herding. It is necessary to trace those children who do not return to school and devise some strategies to encourage parents to send their children back to school.

  1. Preparing teachers, students and parents in advance of future crises

What the current pandemic may have taught school officials, teachers and parents in least income countries is that establishing communication lines between teachers and parents before crisis and maintaining them during this type of crisis is key to support the learning of children from home. I informally asked a few teachers in public schools in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa whether they frequently communicate with parents before the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike private schools, public schools don’t seem to communicate frequently with parents. This needs to be improved. Besides, the education system needs to devise strategies – before crisis – on how to prepare teachers and students to respond effectively and efficiently during a time of crisis. Teachers may not teach all the time in a face-to-face classroom environment; students may not learn in the ‘traditional’ classroom all the time. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the education system needs to prepare everyone to be flexible and adapt quickly to various learning modalities during a time of crisis. The global community may need to support the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and other local educational institutions in their efforts to prepare schools, teachers, students, and parents for future crisis.