Lessons via radio or TV. Math problems in newspapers. Classes on Zoom or WhatsApp.
The options for African students to keep studying while schools remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic seem varied, but the reality for many is that they will fall behind and possibly drop out of school forever — worsening inequality on an already unequal continent.
“I think education now is more of an emergency than the health issue,” said Dr. Mary Goretti Nakabugo, a literacy expert who runs a Uganda-based education nonprofit called Uwezo, noting that there have been no reported virus deaths and just over 1,000 cases in this East African country, though, as elsewhere, limited testing means those figures are likely undercounts. Children “are completely helpless at the moment.”
Although the pandemic has disrupted education across the globe, the schooling crisis is more acute in Africa, where up to 80% of students don’t have access to the internet and even electricity can be unreliable, making distance learning difficult, if not impossible. Schools also often provide a refuge to vulnerable children, offering services that their families cannot afford.
Sub-Saharan Africa already has the highest rates of children out of school anywhere in the world, with nearly one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 and over one-third of youth between 12 and 14 not attending, according to the U.N. culture and education agency.
But getting students back to school also comes with special challenges in Africa, where children in some countries may cram into tiny classrooms by the dozens.
The charity Save the Children called the pandemic the “biggest global education emergency of our time” in a report published this week. It identified 12 countries in which children “are at extremely high risk of dropping out forever.” Nine of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.
With the help of outside groups, some African governments have announced measures to support learning from home. But many have been hindered by a lack of reliable electricity and poor internet connectivity. Even newspapers into which learning materials are inserted are not affordable for many in the region. In Uganda, for instance, annual per capita income was less than $800 in 2019, according to World Bank data.
Uganda’s government has pledged to distribute 10 million radios and over 130,000 solar-powered TV sets, but authorities have failed to honor past promises, including giving a free mask to everyone.