More than learning: Going back to school in a post-COVID world

By Jessie Thomson, CARE Canada’s Vice President, Global Programs

School means so much more than books to read, dates to memorize and theories of which to make sense. School is where we form relationships, create community, and embark on the journey towards our future selves.

This year, we all know that back-to-school doesn’t hold the same excitement. Shopping for school supplies, for some a yearly pilgrimage, now likely means yet more time in front of a computer screen. Parents won’t be dropping off their kids and taking those annual photos as friends and teachers dole out hugs or handshakes. Instead, students will don masks that match their outfits and sit in socially distanced desks that might contain walls of plexiglass. Some may not return to a traditional classroom at all.

My daughter is in kindergarten, so you can imagine the uncertainty we’re feeling as we get closer to the big return. If you’ve ever been in a kindergarten classroom, you’ll know that social distancing is next to impossible with so many little ones buzzing around between activities.

Still, my daughter is excited. I’m excited. Because as we’ve seen across Canada and around the world, when kids don’t have access to school, learning isn’t the only thing that suffers.

After being out of school in the spring, I would try to do an activity with my daughter, but she was so unmotivated. All of the fun she associated with learning had evaporated and it had become a chore. I can really see how much she needs to go back to school for her own wellness and as a social kid, she needs to be around other kids. And it’s the same everywhere in the world. The only difference is that in Canada, we have more safety nets.

While not perfect, our school and public health care systems are well resourced. Our government is adding resources with the hope of enabling schools to follow public health measures. Canada’s ability to enact preventative measures, to engage public health authorities and conduct contact tracing when cases arise means that we can identify outbreaks quickly and make the necessary pivots.

This isn’t the case in many of the countries that CARE works in.

CARE’s Country Director in Malawi, Amos Zaindi, told us that kids there won't return to school until at least January. There is a lot of anxiety about how they will manage re-opening in the context of COVID-19 given the lack of resources, both human and financial, needed to keep students and teachers protected from the virus. Even more worrisome, however, are the consequences of keeping schools closed.

School closures are exacerbating the inequalities that existed long before the pandemic for many, both here in Canada and around the world. For many children, school is a safe place where they are free from violence, both from the greater world outside and from violence that might be occurring in their own home. For many as well, school provides a nutritious meal, or several. Not to mention all of the other important aspects of school that kids everywhere enjoy, the friendships and social interaction, the foundations that shape who they become in the future.

Many girls in the countries where CARE works risk losing the momentum they built when they were in school chasing their dreams. If they become pregnant or are forced into early marriage or if they need to work to provide for their families due to the economic crisis, the likelihood that they will continue their education is incredibly low.

I am grateful to everyone who is working so hard to ensure that kids around the world can have what we all want for our children and our future leaders: health, happiness, safety and unlimited potential.

Jessie Thomson

CARE Canada’s Vice President, Global Programs

For example, earlier this year CARE’s Supporting Transition, Retention and Training for Girls (START4GIRLS) in Zimbabwe was launched. Supported by the Government of Canada, the project will work with girls and young women, their communities, and religious and traditional leaders to promote return to school or entrance into vocational skills training for girls who have dropped out, especially married girls and teenage mothers.

Then the pandemic hit.

Everyone everywhere has had to adapt to the world we now face. We’ve had to be nimble and creative, as in communities across Canada, embracing technology to ensure the lifesaving work we do continues. And that includes education. Whether it’s teaching by radio in Kenya or exploring ways to use digital learning tools for rural communities in Sierra Leone, we’re doing our best to make sure students keep learning while school doors are closed.

The hope, as my colleagues have reiterated, is that by keeping students—girls especially—connected to learning, they are more likely to return to school when schools are able to open again. But we know this is not ideal.

Parents are not teachers and homes are not classrooms. The vulnerabilities that many kids face don’t go away just because they are still able to (virtually) have their lessons. There are creative solutions, as we’ve seen. But I’m also mindful—as a parent and as someone working in international development and humanitarian response—of the very real long-term consequences of kids being out of school, here in Canada and around the world.

The preventative measures needed to stop the spread of the virus require a lot of resources. We’re struggling to ensure they are in place in Canada, let alone in countries who don’t have the same systems and resources (both human and financial) in place.

As much as I am worried about the unknown and the risks that many of us will have to weigh, I have faith in our public health systems in Canada to manage what will come. In Malawi, where they didn’t have COVID-19 test kits in the country for three weeks, parents and kids alike do not have this reassurance.

I also feel gratitude. Despite the challenges, my daughter will continue her education. She has all the privilege and resources in the world to achieve her dreams. And while girls in places like Malawi do not have these same guarantees, I know that my colleagues at CARE, countless community volunteers and local partners and parents on the other side of the world are doing their best each day to make education accessible, even in a time of COVID-19. I am grateful to everyone who is working so hard to ensure that kids around the world can have what we all want for our children and our future leaders: health, happiness, safety and unlimited potential.