The COVID-19 outbreak has translated into a major education due to school closure and the interruption of regular education services. In the Arab region, where 13 million children and youth are already out-of-school due to conflict, an additional 100 million learners are now affected by school interruption. When it comes to learners with disabilities, the current coping measures to the COVID-19 pandemic such as school closures, confinement and social distancing have been compounding challenges in spite of exerted efforts to provide continued access to education for them.
Against this backdrop, UNESCO Beirut and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) organized on 18 May 2020 a regional webinar on Inclusive Education during COVID-19 with particular focus on children and youth with disabilities in the region.
This webinar aimed to share regional good practices on inclusive education since the COVID-19 outbreak; discuss the main concerns of vulnerable learners, especially children and youth with disabilities, during the COVID-19 crisis as well as the major challenges of practicing inclusive education; exchange expertise on how to ensure and promote ‘education for all’ in such specific times; and provide practical action plans for supporting inclusive education in the Arab region in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The webinar was attended by more than 80 participants who are INEE members, UNESCO partners, representatives of UN Agencies, of Ministries of Education in the MENA region, National Commissions, and practitioners including CSOs and NGOs working in the inclusive education field, academics and experts of inclusive education in the region.
In his welcome words, Mr Aiman Qwaider, Arabic facilitator of INEE, spoke of the importance of ensuring equal education opportunities for all children because education is a human right. Qwaider mentioned that INEE developed a set of resources in 5 languages in order to ensure that education does not stop despite the COVID-19 outbreak and the closure of schools.
Then, Dr Hegazi Idris, UNESCO Beirut’s Regional Programme Specialist for Basic Education, spoke of the challenges and opportunities in the field of inclusive education in the Arab states and the vision of UNESCO.
"The issue of inclusive education is at the top of UNESCO's priorities, and our organization places inclusive education at the heart of all its programmes."
-- Dr Hegazi Idris, UNESCO Beirut's Regional Programme Specialist for Basic Education
Dr Idris added: "What is the state of inclusive education, especially when it comes to children with disabilities, in the Arab region? There is a disparity between countries in ensuring inclusive education, especially with regard to the inclusion of people with special needs. Some countries are very advanced in this field and others do not give sufficient importance to this topic." Dr Idris highlighted that: "There are several obstacles standing in the way of inclusive education in the region. The Arab region is subject to several conflicts which affect the education sector, and prevents people with disabilities from obtaining their right for education. Community awareness of the issue of inclusive education is still not enough. Also, the media sometimes plays a bad role. Despite all of this, it must be recognized that there has been progress during the past 15 years with regard to states’ awareness of the necessity of ensuring inclusive education and implementing sound policies to achieve this objective. ” Dr. Idris said that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has translated into a major education crisis. Children with disabilities are the most affected by this crisis due to their difficulty to access education. However, the current crisis provides us with an opportunity to rethink education and adapt it to meet the needs of people with disabilities.” He concluded by presenting some recommendations to countries, including: "The need to collect data on people with special needs and their enrollment in education, providing adaptable technological resources, enhancing networking and knowledge sharing, teachers’ training and capacity-building, and engaging the media, religious authorities, and civil society”.
The webinar covered a wide range of topics. Dr. Nabil Eid, Director of Global ICT Accessibility and Inclusion at Ruh Global IMPACT, made a presentation about available Online Platforms to increase educational access for children and youth with disabilities. Dr. Alaa Sebeh, Regional Adviser on Disability - Inclusive Social Development Section/Social Development Division at ESCWA United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia , spoke of key considerations in MENA when it comes to inclusive education in the time of COVID-19. Dr. Hanan El-Kanash, Chief of teaching and learning division at UNRWA HQ Amman, presented UNRWA’s experience with inclusive education, and Dr. Khaled Abu Fidda, from Palestine’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education, presented a case study about inclusive education in the Gaza strip.
The webinar was interactive and an open discussion followed with the participants about the challenges of inclusive education in the Arab states, and ways to advance it.