The COVID-19 outbreak has translated into a major education crisis, causing school closure worldwide and disruption of regular education services. According to UNESCO estimates, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, more than 90% of the world’s school population has been affected by school closure and the wide-ranging introduction of social distancing and remote learning modalities in 191 countries. In the Arab region, where 13 million children and youth are already out-of-school owing to conflict, an additional 100 million learners are now affected by school interruption.
While many Arab countries have developed distance/remote learning solutions to ensure that learning never stops, major concerns were raised over the impact of the lack of appropriate infrastructure and school preparedness on both the equity and quality of remote learning. This was particularly so with regard to the situation of vulnerable learners with no or poor access to remote learning modalities. Concerns were also raised over how to effectively monitor and assess learning progression and outcomes in a meaningful and reliable manner.
Given these concerns, several countries affected by the COVID-19 crisis, including in the Arab region, view school reopening as desirable for the near future. However, decisions about catch-up, the new school year (2020/2021) and modalities to be deployed still have to be taken.
Against this backdrop, and after the recent launch of the Global Framework for Reopening Schools recently published by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and WFP, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States (UNESCO Beirut), in partnership with UNICEF Regional Office in Amman, and other partner agencies including UNHCR, WFP, the World Bank and UNRWA, organized on 20 May 2020 a Regional webinar on school reopening in the Arab States. The webinar aimed to familiarize participants with the Global Framework, explore preconditions of safe school reopening in the Arab Region, as well as measures to be taken to ensure that all learners benefit of equitable access to continuous quality education processes following the COVID-19 crisis.
The webinar was attended by high-level personalities including Egypt’s Minister of Education and Technical Education, Dr. Tareq Shawky, Director-General of Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Dr. Fadi Yarak, UNESCO Beirut’s Director, Dr. Hamed Al Hammami, and UNICEF’s MENA Regional Office Director, Dr. Ted Chaiban. More than 200 participants also took part in the webinar including decision makers in Ministries of Education of the Arab States, representatives of UN agencies, regional agencies (ALECSO, ISESCO, ABEGS), and INGos and NGOs.
In her opening remarks, Dr. Dakmara Georgescu, UNESCO Beirut’s Programme Specialist for Curriculum and Teachers, highlighted that this webinar is part of a series of webinars UNESCO Beirut is planning to organize to discuss the issues and considerations that need to be addressed when planning for the return to school whether this is for catch-up classes, or for gathering evidence to support school opening policy decisions.
Then, UNESCO Beirut’s Director Dr. Hamed al Hammami made a speech in which he welcomed participants and stated: “This webinar is a concrete joint action of different agencies under the umbrella of the Global Education Coalition UNESCO, UNICEF, the WB and WFP are part of. The Global Education Coalition is there to provide guidance, but also concrete support to countries struggling with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 crisis”. He added: “In this webinar and the other events that will be conducted in the near future, we would like to acknowledge and take stock of the tremendous efforts countries have made, including in our Arab region, to adjust to situations never experienced before of school closure and the introduction of wide-ranging social distances measures. Switching from face-to-face to remote learning was not easy and many teachers and learners were not able to benefit from the advantages of radio, TV or online learning modalities. At the same time, we have to be concerned by the overall learning losses the COVID-19 crisis induced even in the case of those who could use remote learning modalities”. Al Hammami highlighted that : “The eagerly- expected reopening of schools needs to be based on principles such as safety and precautions, given sanitary measures and different forms of social distancing will have to be still considered. At the same time, we need to pay attention to equity, quality and accountability. We need to make sure that all learners go back to school; and that we find effective strategies in dealing with learning losses while catering for everybody’s wellbeing.”
In his turn, UNICEF’s MENA Regional Office Director Dr. Ted Chaiban, stated that: “When planning the return to school, we have a responsibility to pay attention to those who are most vulnerable, including children who did not have the chance to get education during lockdown, and those who might not be able to return to school due to the economic situation. We must take the opportunity of the return to school to ensure the inclusion of students and children who were out of the educational system before the crisis, so that no child is left behind”. He added: “When the schools will reopen, teachers’ role will be key. We need to prepare teachers and build their capacities to face the challenges of re-schooling, dealing with catch-up losses, addressing the psychosocial needs of students, and observing hygiene rules”.
Then, Ms. Maysoun Chehab, UNESCO Beirut’s Regional Education Coordinator, made a brief overview of the Arab States’ school reopening plans, stressing that major concerns remain as to teachers’ preparedness, hygiene rules, psychosocial support, and assessment. Ms. Adriana Vogelaar from UNICEF and Ms. Maria Tsvetkova from WFP presented the Global Framework for School Reopening, as well as the main pillars of a draft Regional Plan of Action for the implementation of the Global Framework at national level with the support of UN agencies and partners .
The Global Framework, jointly published by UNESCO, UNICEF, the WB and WFP, foresees the following dimensions:
1. Schools as safe places: adequate conditions are created to apply protocols for how to behave (social distancing, handwashing) as well as what to do if cases appear;
2.Learning: ensure children have the opportunity to catch up on learning – as many (or most) children may not have been able to remain updated with their class work;
3.Inclusiveness: ensure all come back – particularly those at risk of dropping out, for example because of economic pressure;
4.Wellbeing and protection: address psycho-emotional impact on children; and re-establish regular and safe delivery of essential services, among which, for example, WASH and health services such as school feeding, protection referrals and specialized services for children with disabilities.
This was followed by country presentations about Arab States’ school reopening plans and challenges faced. Hence, Minister Shawky spoke of Egypt’s plan to reopen schools and the modalities to be adopted; Director General Fadi Yarak presented an overview of Lebanon’s plan and major issues faced during remote learning; Ms. Lubna Alshamsi, Head of School Operations at the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates spoke of the online learning platforms developed in the UAE and the plans for the gradual reopening of schools; Mr. Fouad Chafiqi, Head of Curriculum and Planning at the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training in Morocco presented Morocco’s experience; and lastly Ms. Caroline Pontefract, Director of Education and Ms. Frosse Dabit, Education Programme Specialist at UNRWA made a presentation about the conditions of school reopening and measures to be taken to ensure the safety of all students.
The webinar provided participants with an opportunity to reflect on important issues such as the factors to consider when taking the decision to reopen schools, conditions and hygiene/safety rules to be observed, catch-up and remedial actions to compensate for any learning losses, and assessment and evaluation matters.
This webinar will be followed by a series of other webinars to examine these issues more in-depth and come up with policy recommendations to be shared with Arab Member States, as well as focus on several identified thematic priorities, such as remedial learning strategies; blended learning.; and inclusion of vulnerable learners.
Webinar recording available using the link below: https://youtu.be/V58hZpV4O0w