In this article by young creator Yasmein Abdelghany for the #MakeEducationWork campaign, she writes about COVID-19, school closures, digital education and the digital divide.
In March 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown came into effect, Egypt shifted to online learning to address the disruption in schooling.
However, to Salma, 8, a third-grader who lives in a village in Al-gharbiya governorate, with her parents and two younger siblings, this was unfortunate news. Salma’s parents work as farmers, her mother is uneducated and her father left school after preparatory school. Salma knew that she wouldn’t have access to any online content.
My parents don’t have smartphones, my father has a phone that only makes calls, and I can’t watch the lessons on it.”Salma, a third grader
She continued, “My parents told me that they can’t afford the cost of a smartphone and internet, they had done their best by sending me to school and paying the books’ expenses. They told me I just have to wait until the pandemic ends and the school reopens to continue my education”.
The effects of school closures.
The closure of schools has had a very real impact on children’s daily routines, social interactions, and ultimately on their mental well-being but for children faced with additional barriers due to poverty, single-parent families, illness or disability, things were even worse.
According to UNICEF, the pandemic affected the education of more than 110 million children and young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and UNICEF-supported surveys indicated that nearly 40 per cent of families in the MENA region expressed concerns about the damages that the COVID-19 crisis is having on the education of their children and the ineffectiveness of online learning due to the lack of resources, limited access to the internet, lack of support from adult family members, and difficulties to connect with teachers.
Bridging the digital divide has proved a challenge for every nation, but there are solutions, such as prioritising investments in internet infrastructure, reopening schools, teachers’ digital literacy, and solidarity and coordination of efforts.
An opportunity to bridge the digital divide.
Before the pandemic, Egypt had launched digitalization plans in all sectors, including education, through the new education reform strategy in 2018 that aims at increasing the uptake of technology in classrooms. And as COVID-19 has demonstrated that ensuring access to the internet has never been more vital for education than it is today, Egypt saw it as a priority to bridge the digital gap.
Egypt started carrying out a plan to raise the efficiency of telecommunication networks, and develop the telecommunication infrastructure nationwide.
The country began capitalising on cutting-edge technologies, such as fibre optics and working to boost Internet speed at an EGP 30 billion cost, leading to an increase in the average broadband speed, from 6.5 Mbps in January 2019, to 34.9 Mbps in December 2020.
These efforts led Egypt to be positioned among the Top 10 Improvers in Digital Inclusion in 2020 in Roland Berger’s Digital Inclusion Index (RB DII).
However, Egypt struggled with ensuring digital access to a sizable number of children living in rural areas. This was mostly due to the lack of infrastructure and affordability of the internet for online learning.
Sara, A primary school teacher in a village in Al-Gharbiya governorate, had noticed this divide.
When we shifted to online learning, only about a third of children were able to attend online lessons. Although the school has children from middle-income and above middle-income families who can access and afford internet and devices, the majority here are unable to afford the costs of devices or internet.”Sara
She continued: “After partially returning to school last term, it was sad to see the achievement level of many children deteriorating and forgetting what they had learned as a result of not following up on the online lessons. These children are from low-income and single-parent families, and the children with disabilities or illness as the family pays more attention to the health of the child more than his education. They depend on the school for education”.
Even in homes with one Smartphone, it may not be available to the children for learning, she added.
At Ahmed’s home in a village in Al-Gharbyia governorate, he and his two older siblings vied for a single smartphone, that is owned by their father. The siblings have worked out a schedule to use their father’s smartphone.
After the dad comes from work, Ramy, 13, starts watching his lessons via phone, his younger sister Shaimaa, 11, gets the phone next, and then if the phone is still available *Ahmed, 8, uses the phone to watch his lessons.
Only my father has a phone with internet. When he comes home, he gives the phone to Ramy then Shimaa, then me. Sometimes mother read me my lessons from the book until my siblings finish using the phone.”Ahmed, a third grader
Challenges faced by people living with disabilities.
The COVID19 crisis has been a challenging time for disabled children. It has highlighted and exacerbated- the inequities affecting them.
“I can no longer hear my classmates’ voices surrounding me,” says Fares, is a fifth-grader living with a visual disability. In addition to listening to his lessons, he enjoys listening to his classmates and teachers talking and narrating stories, especially during the school break time. Fares found in these conversations a lot of entertainment and compensation for poor vision.
When we started learning online, I felt sad and didn’t want to continue learning. Although I can still hear the voice of my teachers through videos on the phone, I can no longer hear my classmates’ voices surrounding me, I can no longer chat with them or with my teachers.”Fares, a fifth grader
For Ibrahim, a child in the same class as Fares, the situation was not any better. Ibrahim suffers from muscle atrophy; he cannot write or walk without a wheelchair. Ibrahim’s learning depends on the care given to him by his teachers in the classroom, who help him to turn the pages of the book and give him special care so that he can learn like his classmates and not be left behind.
After the school closure, Ibrahim didn’t have the chance to watch the online lessons, as his mother was more concerned about taking care of his health and helping him eat and change.
My mother helps me with everything; she helps me in eating, drinking, changing clothes and everything.”Ibrahim, a fifth grader
With the school doors closed, children with disabilities like Fares and Ibrahim were unable to access physical learning opportunities, social and emotional support available in school.
These children had been falling further behind and becoming isolated and this could be clearly noticed after the schools had partially reopened the last term.
When the school partially reopened last term, I noticed that Fares was not the same as before. He became isolated from his classmates and teachers, and no longer wanted to open conversations. Even when we tried to converse with him, he gave brief responses and did not elaborate as before.”Ms. Amal, Fares and Ibrahim’s teacher
She continued, “Children with disabilities like fares and Ibrahim started suffering from mental health issues after the school closure; this can be clearly noticed after they came back to school, and being isolated had created barriers between them and their classmates that didn’t exist before”.
The worries over the digital exclusion of children in the Egyptian countryside led the government to adopt digitizing Egypt’s villages starting august 2021.
The project is a part of the Decent life initiative ‘Haya Karima’ and its budget is estimated at L.E. 6 billion, and its implementation will take up to 18 months.
Haya Karima Initiative works on implementing a comprehensive program to develop all the Egyptian villages to improve the standard of living of citizens.
The Egyptian government’s digitalization plans of villages for the medium and long term are sure to make the coming decade considerably more fruitful than the last.
Yet, around the world and in the MENA region there are still a lot of children who are being left behind because of the lack of access to the internet and devices for online learning.
Ensuring Digital Inclusion.
In order to ensure digital inclusion, here are some recommendations based on UNICEF recommendations, and the views of the interviewees’ teachers and the author:
Prioritising investments in internet infrastructure.
As COVID19 reveals and exacerbates the digital divide, governments should prioritize investments in connectivity to create opportunities for marginalized people in rural communities. They also should consider other barriers besides lack of connectivity and network coverage like the issues of affordability, accessibility of content, and lack of digital literacy.
Additionally, schools should reopen following hygiene protocols and trying to provide children with opportunities to get the chance to catch up on what they missed out on during lockdown so they do not fall further behind.
It is also important to maintain the protection, health, and wellbeing of children especially children with special education needs services that can be accessed only while in schools.
Ensuring proper support for children with disabilities.
Schools must ensure that children with disabilities receive proper support and works on creating opportunities for them to develop strong social and emotional skills inside and outside the classroom.
Teachers’ digital literacy.
It is important to offer teachers training on digital skills. This will be key in a context where the new normal will increasingly involve the use of technological tools.
Solidarity and coordination of the efforts.
Ensuring educational equity and inclusion and not further hinder the inclusion of vulnerable children in education systems during the covid-19 crisis requires solidarity and reduction of fragmentation and coordination of the efforts of civil society, the private sector, and governments to develop policies and expand programmes that prioritize inclusion to ensure the opportunities of education and other services that connectivity can provide are accessible to all.
Yasmein Abdelghany is an awards-winning young leader in Peace, Education and Sustainable Development.
She works with many regional and international organizations on achieving sustainable development goals. She was chosen by the Danish Ministry of foreign affairs and Copenhagen business school as a young Egyptian researcher with a proven track record in sustainability.
She is a speaker at United Nations International youth day, author at United Nations international conference and organizer and content creator at the World Youth Forum. She aims to help youth worldwide get a better education and future