This blog was written by Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, the independent annual report published by UNESCO, monitoring progress towards the education targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. In 2020, the GEM Report will also specifically address inclusion in education, drawing attention to all those excluded from education, because of background or ability. This blog was originally published on the Education International Worlds of Education website on 22 April 2020.

In the middle of the turmoil that the pandemic has caused, two perspectives are critical. First, the upheaval has thrown pre-existing inequalities into sharp relief. Second, the crisis is the backdrop to a crash course in moral philosophy: we are all faced with stark choices, as solutions that help some, can cause grave damage to others. Both perspectives are highly relevant for education.

Governments all over the world have responded with zeal to the new circumstances. However, just as education systems are struggling to cater for the marginalized in the best of times, the weaknesses of the various distance learning modalities being hastily put together become increasingly apparent. The lack of contact with students deprives teachers of some of the most important tools they usually have at their disposal to compensate for marginalized learners’ disadvantages.

The 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education, due out on June 23, shows how many children come face to face with discrimination and alienation from education in the best of times. These disadvantages are exacerbated: poor students cannot connect to distance learning modalities in equal terms and their homes often do not offer an appropriate environment to study. Despite numerous examples of heroic efforts to overcome obstacles, the onus on teachers to find solutions is disproportionate and unfair. Faced with the prospect of lengthy school closures, more consideration needs to be given right now to ensure the marginalized do not fall further behind. We should not forget how some teachers are working from a distance with immense difficulty.

Online learning is only good for those who do not need one-to-one support and those that were trained to deliver it. As this teacher in France puts it in his message to the French Minister of Education, teachers are not comfortable with rolling out new pedagogies only designed for the most privileged students. Children with learning difficulties, for example, will not be able to work independently in front of a computer. The lack of routine provided in schools, and the lack of therapy that many receive within school walls will be disconcerting for many. Expectations, and methods of ensuring the most marginalized learners do not lose out need to be re-considered.

Some teachers are managing to go the extra mile to reach students with disabilities, using video conferencing to teach Braille, for instance. But this is the exception rather than the rule and it is not sustainable. Training is now being rolled out on an impressive scale in some countries, but, while immensely reactive, initiatives such as becoming an online tutor in 24 hours, as promoted in the United Arab Emirates, simply will not be enough for teachers trying to reach marginalized families.

While exceptional times call for exceptional measures, with hiccoughs and mistakes clearly expected along the way, some more alarming situations have arisen for marginalized learners. The United States, for example, rather than coming up with new solutions to bridge the gap, is considering dismissing waiving portions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which it believes to be impossible to provide during the pandemic. Training and support services for those with special needs were scaled back in China and suspended in Argentina.

Education support personnel and community-based volunteers during this education hiatus will be critical for ensuring the safety and learning needs of the most marginalized learners don’t get forgotten. Some are calling the care that they provide to children with disabilities a key infrastructure – another vital service – which should be protected above all. Sending emails with links, and attachments, is simply not sufficient for students from socio-economically challenged families. Direct contact, to the greatest extent possible during a time of social-distancing, must be established. UNESCO goes so far as to recommend that “it may be desirable to maintain minimum opportunities for classroom learning, with small groups of special needs learners.”

Covid-19 has cast a light on the harsh reality many of us working in education research have been trying to fix for years: systems are often built on shaky ground, designed for one ‘type’ of student, and often leaving many learners unable to find their place in school. This upheaval we now see has lifted the veil on just how unequal society is, and education within that. While this gives hope that the pieces of the puzzle might land in a more inclusive formation once this crisis is over, it does not solve the raging inequalities in learning opportunities we see being rolled out today. What is crucial is that teachers and education support personnel are included in discussions about how to improve the policies just designed, and in particular on how to get back to school with the least disruption when doors open.