COVID-19 impacts youth voices and hampers participation

COVID-19 has upended the lives of students and teachers, and everyone else. For young people the pandemic has impacted both their studies as well as their participation in society. Due to school closures, students have been unable to come together in physical spaces, massively affecting their communication between themselves as well as with teachers and communities. But the new modes of interaction, principally online, have also spurred innovation and empowered some students to find their voices.

At the same time, in the pandemic’s social and education disruption, disadvantaged people are experiencing disproportionate harm, amid widening inequality based on the digital divide.

Of children and youth aged 8 to 19 studying before the pandemic, 73 per cent experienced school closures, with 13 per cent left without any access to courses, teachers or learning at all because of gaps in online and distance learning, according to  UNESCO and the Council of Europe. In addition, 17 per cent of young people who were working before the pandemic stopped altogether.

For those with internet access, devices and the digital infrastructure, learning shifted largely to online, with a considerable social media component encouraging peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher communications in new contexts. However, the study also shows that shows that less than half of the respondents were encouraged by their teachers to participate in calls and opportunities; and opportunities for social engagement and community action also fell by about 50 per cent.

Those results were part of the discussion at the conference ‘From making student voice heard to active civic participation in the digital age: The role of schools during and after the pandemic’ from 23 to 25 November 2020, organized by UNESCO in partnership with the Council of Europe, the University of Roehampton and UNODC. UNESCO’s Associated Schools Network and the Council of Europe’s Democratic Schools Network also participated to provide examples and testimonies. The three-day event featured in-depth discussions about active citizenship, particularly in the digital age, youth engagement, the role of schools and human rights, with contributions from teachers, school administrators and policymakers from across Europe and the Middle East and North Africa.

‘At the beginning of the pandemic, my colleagues and I were a little confused, because we weren’t sure if this virus was a joke or not. We started thinking about how to move our events online,’ a student from Romania told participants. ‘This year we realized the opportunities the online environment offered us,’ she added.

Student voice during the COVID-19 pandemic

The conference also heard preliminary results from the research project ‘Student Voice During the COVID-19 Pandemic’. The project supports the #LearningNeverStops campaign backed by UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, which brings together 160 members from the United Nations, civil society, academia and the private sector.

In the current research project, an online teacher survey received responses from more than 1,000 secondary school teachers in Europe and MENA asking them about student voice in their schools before and during the pandemic, particularly in light of the lockdown starting in March that affected 96 per cent of participating schools. The survey was available in Arabic, English and French, with case studies in France, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Portugal, Romania, Tunisia and the UK in September and October 2020 gathering data on both student and teacher responses.

Student voice and participation are fundamental children’s and human rights, established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the mandate that every child should have a say about what affects them, in or out of school, as well as freedom of expression and association, and the right to information.

‘Students have to participate in the life of their schools to make their voices heard. They must defend freedom and democracy,’ a student from Tunisia said. ‘We must reimagine life and schools in Tunisia in order to help to develop sustainable development policies. This may make the difference in the future.’

As the results continue to be analyzed and inform education interventions, during this pandemic and for the longer term, more work needs to be done. Both the discussions at the conference and the underpinning research will be published in early 2021 to inform new strategies to work as partners with children and young people.

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