Bangkok (Agenzia Fides) - The Covid-19 pandemic has had a strong impact on education systems globally. According to UNICEF, the effects of the pandemic have affected more than 1.5 billion students globally, and 1 billion students have not yet had the opportunity to return to school. School closures have had a profound impact on the learning pathways and young students across the globe, and it is estimated that about 430 million children, teens and young people in South Asia have had no access to distance learning. The educational emergency has hit the most fragile countries and the weakest and most vulnerable social groups in a stronger way. A note from the "Give us today our daily bread" campaign, launched internationally by the FOCSIV network ("Federation of Christian organizations for international voluntary service") and the Italian Caritas, notes that "in the poorest countries, school is one of the few places of promotion and protection for children from fragile and vulnerable families. School is in fact the place where at least once a day all children can have a decent meal; and with the closure of schools, at least 346 million children have not had this opportunity".
The impact of school closures has been felt in many Asian nations: With the pandemic, many higher education institutions in most Asian countries have switched to online learning. However, it has been difficult to continue education for students without access to internet and these digital inequalities persist in all countries. Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia alone have over 80% of people who have the internet in their social life. In Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, less than 60% of the population has access to the internet, while only about 40% have access to the web in Myanmar and Vietnam.
The digital divide extends far beyond Internet access and also affects the reliability, speed and accessibility of electronic devices that promote learning. The most vulnerable often face more than one disadvantage, which has amplified the impact of the pandemic. Some institutions or governments have introduced a loan system to provide students in need with appropriate devices.
Another fundamental aspect - said a recent study by the World Bank - is how and if systems, students and teachers are prepared and have managed to adapt to online learning. Some colleges and universities had an "online" approach to teaching even before the pandemic. For example, Taylor University in Malaysia, a Christian institute, announced that each of its courses already had its own virtual site, which allowed online involvement for assessments, assignments, support between students and teachers. Countries with solid internet infrastructure, such as South Korea, have reaped major benefits when it comes to continuing education online. Concerns have intensified in countries with less infrastructure. In Indonesia, for example, students offered mixed responses to the recent forced transition to online courses. Some find online classes to be less effective and struggle to interact online with teachers and colleagues. This is not only because of internet access problems, but also because students (and teaching staff) are not used to such environments or lack the skills to make optimal use of such platforms. In a survey of 1,045 students from the "Indonesia University of Education" in Bandung, 48% of students said they needed more time to get used to Internet-based learning, despite the availability of educational applications.
Faced with these challenges, full collaboration is needed between institutions and between the private sector and institutions and in many Asian nations where the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches are directly involved in the work of education, managing schools of all types and levels, the focus is on student well-being and on medium and long-term support for the school system, which is crucial for society. Some institutions in Vietnam are providing scholarships to students whose families are the hardest hit by the pandemic. In the Philippines, institutions are considering reimbursing college tuition fees to students and in Thailand 52 universities have pledged to cut tuition to ease the pressure on students. These family support initiatives and institutional interventions represent interventions in the right direction which, according to the Asian Churches, can reduce the impact of the pandemic on schools and therefore the future of young people. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 7/9/2020)