By Sheldon Shaeffer, Chair, Board of Directors, Asia=Pacific Regional Network on Early Childhood (ARNEC)
Post-Covid-19, the world will not be the same for a very long time. Life may be so different that there might not even be a post-Covid-19 world in the sense of ever returning to any form of normalcy. We should spend more time assessing exactly what effect this pandemic is going to have on the feasibility of achieving SDG 4. It is time that we moved past discussions about the logistics of school opening to the policies needed to address the pandemic’s long-term damage. At least four major implications for education come to mind.
First, achievements in virtually all sectors of development will be reversed and even lost. Maternal, child, and infant mortality; immunisation rates; food security; poverty; and school enrolment and completion rates will be affected. Parents may no longer be able to afford to educate their children, and child labour may increase. They may also decide to prolong home schooling in face of successive waves of Covid-19 or other pandemics, while students may decide themselves not to return to school after their extended break.
Second, young children will likely be the most harmed by the pandemic. Their nutritional status will be damaged, their sense of security threatened, their health compromised, and their cognitive and social-emotional development seriously disrupted. They will also be more often exposed to toxic home environments – the result of increased domestic violence and poverty – in which many of them will not thrive.
Third, early childhood education and development (ECD) will suffer more than other education levels. Government-supported schools and kindergartens will likely keep their teachers (though perhaps with less pay) during the pandemic and into the re-opening. But many non-elite private schools and community-based ECD programmes have already closed; without a salary, staff may leave and the ECD workforce capacity, enhanced over many years, will be seriously eroded. The slow but steady increase in enrolment in ECD programmes around the world over the last two decades may return to the multiple challenges they were facing a decade ago.
Fourth, existing disparities in access to social services, including education will be exacerbated:
In addition, education facilities may have suffered from disuse, children’s learning will have been disrupted, and teachers will be demoralised and demotivated; some may have even left the profession. The challenge will be to return to where education was pre-Covid-19 and to become strong enough to progress enough to reach SDG 4. Current discourse focuses largely on immediate responses to the pandemic and the mechanics of re-opening, and not on addressing its longer-term impact. There has been virtually no discussion of solutions to the challenges mentioned above. But some solutions can be imagined; for example:
There is a risk that the losses caused by Covid-19 will take the world back to where it was at the starting point of the Sustainable Development Goals and the time of the Incheon Declaration (2015) or even to Dakar (2000). The hard-won gains, the momentum towards enhanced early childhood development and a greater focus on successful early learning, and the strengthened commitments of many governments towards achieving the SDGs are at high risk of being lost, especially if the points above are not underlined by all as they build back better in the future.