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How Covid-19 intensified inequality

According to UNESCO data, 1.2 billion students worldwide have been directly affected by the closure of educational institutions as a result of the pandemic, that is, almost 70% of the total. [1] When the pandemic broke out, most educational institutions made great efforts to move education to the online stage, but no, not all students have access to the internet. It seems obvious, or rather, it is obvious, but even so it is a forgotten fact, ignored or on which much attention has not been paid.

Before Covid-19, the biggest concerns when talking about children and the internet was the risk they were exposed to and the need to protect them, but I humbly believe that the pandemic has given us a cold bath. Recently, these fears have been displaced to give rise to the prevailing need to massify access to networks. Surely this cannot be a discriminated process, as no other can be, but the paradigm shift that has been generated is evident.

Distance education or online education represents a possibility to break the geographical link with the educational institution to facilitate the participation of more students. Even so, it is not an automatic fact, the opposite can be just as true. Differences in accessibility, infrastructure and preparation can increase the gap that exists between the most and least favored students, that is, the benefits of distance education are not direct.

In the midst of the pandemic, given the need or intention to move to distance education, the situation worldwide has highlighted the inequalities that were already known. In the US, 18.3% of those under 18 years of age do not have access to the internet at home [2] and, although the number has been decreasing, it is equally shocking when one considers that it is one of the main powers in the world. At the other extreme are countries like Venezuela, where the number of children without internet access at home reaches 62% and is increasing every year. [3] Within this huge disadvantaged group around the world, surely there are those who did not participate in formal education before the pandemic and those who have been disconnected as a result of the quarantine. Specific numbers are hard to find.

Inequality intensifies

Cutting off the relationship between children and young people and their training institutions not only deteriorates education, but also affects other important problems also linked to inequality such as:

  • Materials: Not all institutions have the ability to transfer books and other materials to online format.

  • Food: For many students, the only source of nutritious food they receive is at school, a particularly serious situation in less developed countries.

  • The differences: Not all students learn through the same teaching methods, and an improvised online format surely tends toward standardization. Also, in the best of cases, the class has advanced students who require more significant challenges, but what about those who have difficulty learning. In the midst of this time of pandemic, how are those with learning difficulties cared for?

In other words, this situation will surely bring with it: learning losses, children missing the most important meal of the day, and increased dropout rates. [4] A recent report by the World Economic Forum talks about the dangers of a new lost generation and what it may represent in the long term. [5]

The pandemic is just beginning

Some believe that "the educational system as it was before the pandemic will not continue to function for at least [...] one or two years, until the vaccine arrives." [6] If so, the consequences could be multiplied or extended to irreversible levels. How many children will be without classes during this period? How much bigger will the gap between those who have the ability to keep up and those who stay disconnected?

It could also be thought that, as the pandemic extends over time, the institutions will adapt and the situation could improve. But there are also regions of the world where school closures increase teen pregnancy, sexual violence, and the risk of recruitment by armed groups. [7] In short, the emergency could pave the way towards raising awareness of the problems and spreading good practices in distance education, but it also translates into serious dangers for the most vulnerable communities.

El Covid19 intensificando la desigualdad
Covid19 intensifying inequality. Drawing by the author.

The same concern applies to educational centers. Just as today there are important differences between the equipment and the preparation that teachers have, it is logical to think that institutions with greater resources will be able to move more easily towards online education. If this were the case, the internet and electronic devices would become necessary luxuries to access certain areas of education.

Towards the future

There are many lines of thought that suggest that this crisis will drive the development of distance education and that many of the institutions that were forced to apply this model will give it more importance and seek ways to develop it. [4] With this perspective there are at least two points to take into account:

  • The first is a trend. This current of thought would imply that we are part of societies that learn quickly, that have not gone out en masse to the streets, beaches and nightclubs at the first sign of easing of the quarantine and that the institutions do not have a long list of problems that this crisis has only intensified. After the tear gas of the pandemic, the outstanding debts will become visible again and will occupy the first places of the list of needs.

  • The second are complicated questions. Will the institutions - in very different situations from one another - take into account the diversity of the student population? Will the accelerated progress of distance education intensify inequality among students? Can those who have difficulty accessing a notebook be part of an education based on the use of digital devices?

Short term considerations

While Europe and parts of Asia and North America move towards control of the crisis and post-coronavirus paths are proposed, many countries in Latin America and Africa fall and relapse, compromising all services, including education.

In this sense, cases such as Jordan and China provide some clues on how to deal with the situation. In China, the Ministry of Education has made many books available on the internet for free, while courses and resources relevant to the training of children are broadcast on television for those living in rural areas. [9] In Jordan, in a perhaps more interesting example, not only have similar initiatives been taken on television, but UNICEF is distributing printed materials to the most vulnerable communities, including specialized documents for children with special needs. [10]

Medium and long-term considerations

Online education provides important opportunities, even to tackle the issue of inequality, but it is not inversely proportional. If distance education increases, it does not necessarily decrease inequality. The possibility of reaching more people through online education is just that, a potential. When we have the possibility of being in charge of the next online course, of the programming of the next semester that will be totally or partially dictated online or simply of the organization of the resources that students will have available through the network, it will be necessary to ask ourselves :

  • Are we considering all future or potential students?

  • Are these resources / models going to serve everyone equally?

If the answers are negative, then it will be our responsibility to dedicate the time and resources in setting up the programs or providing possibilities / scholarships / support / follow-up to those students who might require help to join or follow these types of models. Let's not leave them behind blinded by the values of distance education.

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[5] World Economic Forum, COVID-19 Risks Outlook A Preliminary Mapping and Its Implications. 2020.



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