Globally, more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been impacted by school closures over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these children will not be able to return after schools reopen due to several factors, including decreased family incomes. According to UNICEF, the number of children who live in monetary-poor households in developing countries could increase by 142 million after the pandemic.
Despite efforts to move learning online or via television and radio, many children have not been able to access these resources. Several factors contribute to this, from a lack of access to computers and tablets, to the internet, or broadcast media, and the need to support the family by taking on tasks or jobs to maintain the household. And when children aren’t physically in school, their access to social services such as free meals and the safe haven that schools can provide from difficult home situations is limited if not cut off entirely.
So, how can educators in developing countries best determine how to support their students, given available resources and constraints?
The root of the many answers to these questions lies with improved data.
Access to data on students and communities can help educators better support children during the pandemic and beyond. Such information can include insights into students' ability to access the internet, TV, radio, learning materials, and a safe place to learn. As schools often provide services beyond education, it is also important for the education information system to link with the social welfare and health information systems. Schools with a holistic picture of their students during this time can better ensure children have the support they need both in and outside of the classroom.
But in order to have this information readily available, countries need to invest in robust longitudinal student information systems that can link with social welfare and health case management information systems. Such interconnected systems give educators and school administrators access to each student's information, allowing them to make informed decisions on how to best support their overall student population and determine if there are any students who need specific support or referrals to services.
There also needs to be a concerted effort by teachers and principals to follow up with students and their caregivers while children are not in school. This allows educators to collect basic data about the students to better coordinate with community workers, who are going to households to collect the needed information and providing outreach.
To ensure a successful implementation of education information systems, governance issues―the "nuts and bolts" that outline digital system processes and procedures―should be taken into consideration. Stakeholder alignment, including with child welfare advocates, and long-term sustainability strategies should be in place to ensure that educational institutions can continue to manage and maintain these systems.
Planning for ICT and Infrastructure
In the longer term, educational institutions and other actors from the digital development ecosystem should plan for creating information, communication, and technology (ICT) enablers, such as increasing availability of internet connectivity in and around schools. This will not only help in closing the digital divide but will give more children access to learning resources and in turn, give teachers better data about their students.
But establishing digital resources for students and children comes with risks and those in the education field must establish monitoring and accountability measures for sharing data about students and their needs securely. The perspective of the children should always be taken into consideration and data privacy and consent should be a fundamental component of any education information system.
Besides developing and rolling out these systems, as with many big systematic changes, there needs to be a cultural change around use of data for decision-making by headmasters and faculty in education settings.
Through routine review of data, school faculty can determine the percentage of children still engaging in education activities while schools are closed, whether there are clusters of students without access to the internet or broadcast channels so a centralised access point could be established, or if there are students who need access to social services.
In these challenging times, knowledge is important for targeted action. Having access to updated data on students can help educators ensure fewer children drop out of school, and arm decision-makers with what’s needed to address inequities in access to learning and supportive services. Most importantly, it can also help schools better plan for their reopening and successfully bringing all children back into the classroom.
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