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  • Hanna Bajwa

The future for Africa's students

Countries around the world are implementing lockdown measures to slow the spread of Covid-19. More than a third of the world’s population is under some form of restriction. South Africa went into lockdown on March 26th, and since May 1st have been allowed to leave their homes between 6 am and 9am for exercise. Previously, only essential businesses could remain open, and soldiers and police patrolled and monitored the streets. For a country already grappling with an almost 30 percent unemployment rate and low economic growth, the lockdown has been tough, although temporary funds and economic packages have been implemented. Kenya initiated lockdown procedures a week earlier than South Africa. Their lockdown measures included a night-time curfew, the closure of pubs and restaurants as well as blocking non-residents from entering the country. Zimbabwe enforced a strict lockdown, although it only had a small number of infections. Nigeria, by far Africa's most populous nation, closed its land borders and banned all international flights in late March. It is now beginning a process of easing restrictions, partially allowing shops and markets to resume activity.

A common lockdown measure worldwide is the closure of education centres. Tanzania, for example, reported its first case in mid-March and the government closed education centres, but public and religious gatherings were not prohibited. Countries easing their measures include Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda - yet the common theme is that all schools remain shut. So, what is the potential impact of African students being prevented access to education?

As of 27 April 2020, approximately 1.725 billion learners across the world have been affected due to school closures in response to the pandemic. The first impact of school closures is the social and economic costs. The impact for those in African countries, and many others worldwide, include compromised nutrition, childcare problems, and consequent economic costs. Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close to take care of their children, incurring wage loss in many instances and negatively impacting productivity of the country. Many countries have seen responses to the closure of schools such as ‘distance learning’ via platforms like Zoom. However, the lack of access to technology or fast, reliable internet access can prevent students from learning. For thousands of children in African countries that lack access to technology or good internet connectivity, this is an obstacle to continued learning. Hundreds of libraries worldwide have temporarily closed, further prohibiting access to education. Although several initiatives were taken to grant students and teachers access to open educational resources, the limitation of restricted internet access remains. In sub-Saharan Africa, poverty greatly decreases opportunities; 2 out of every 5 children will not finish primary school because of poverty. The figure of African school children living in poverty, let alone not being able to access online resources, greatly decreases their chances of any form of education during this pandemic.

South Africa’s curriculum must be simplified, targeting areas where learning loss will be most consequential for the following years to combat the lost time. The sad truth is that for South Africa, and many other African countries with low and unequal achievement scores, the longer social distancing is in place, the bigger the learning losses for learners, especially the most disadvantaged, thereby deepening inequalities.

Schooling provides essential learning, and when schools close children and youth are deprived opportunities for growth and development. The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school. Disadvantaged children are more likely not to return to school after the closures are ended, and the effect will often be a life-long disadvantage stemming from these from lost opportunities. In African countries where just 6% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa will enrol for some form of tertiary education, compared to a child in an OECD country who has an 80% chance, a decrease in this number will have a massive negative impact, economically and socially. It’s not possible to boil down the value of education to just dollars and cents. But economists who’ve tried generally have found that in high-income countries, an extra year of education is worth about a 10 percent boost in income. If you take that literally, the implication is that two or three months’ worth of school closure will cost today’s cohort of schoolchildren thousands of dollars a year in lost earnings for their entire lives. Especially in developing countries, where a few thousand dollars can make a life changing difference, the effect of the school closures could be detrimental both for the economy long-term and students.

Image by ludi from Pixabay.

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