Afghanistan: Covid-19 brings uncertainty to learning

By Asma Rabi

COVID-19 presents a significant challenge to the education system in Afghanistan. School closures have turned a spotlight on access to education and inequalities across the country. As in countries around the world, the speed of these closures and the rapid move to distance learning has allowed little time for policy-makers to come up with quick solutions to the problem. Studies are already suggesting that school closures may have a negative impact on the country’s educational system.

The story of Covid-19 in Afghanistan

Before the pandemic, Afghanistan was already fragile, with high levels of poverty and migration and ongoing conflict in many provinces. The country faced numerous and complicated challenges – including education. According to UNICEF, Afghanistan has some of the world’s worst education outcomes. An estimated 3.7 million children are out of school, 60% are girls. But despite poor outcomes, Afghanis consider education to be crucial to an individual’s ability to overcome the many obstacles they face, and transformative for families and communities.

How the government responded to COVID-19

After initial cases were reported, the Government of Afghanistan imposed a nationwide lockdown. This included closing all educational institutions. Lockdown was staggered throughout the country, following the wave of the disease. As part of lockdown measures, the Ministry of Education did not re-open approximately 18,000 schools after the winter vacation, which had been due to end on 21 March. These schools remain closed at the time of writing affecting an estimated 9 million students.

The Ministry of Education considered three education response plans: distance learning, print-based self-learning, and small-group learning. Self-learning has not been implemented due to the overwhelming logistics of printing and issuing materials to every student. In a telephone interview with Mr Sediq Majidi, the head of the policy unit at the MoE, he stated that currently, the MoE cannot provide printing materials to each student across the country due to the pandemic. However, they are working hard to find a possible solution to this problem. Our research (Youth Researchers, 2020 forthcoming) suggests that although some school-going children can access the services provided by the government, many can’t

The distance learning approach was launched in May when the Ministry launched its own distance learning education programme for students from grades 1 to 12. The Afghanistan national curriculum is now, for the first time, being taught via the internet as well as radio and television broadcast. Social science subjects are taught through the radio and science subjects are taught on television. The Ministry uses its own TV channel that broadcasts lessons for each grade one hour of curriculum per day.

But as many remote areas lack access to radio, television, and the internet, the government also promoted a face-to-face teaching approach. This is the small-group learning. The ministry recommended that, where distance learning is not available, small groups of 5 to 8 learners could be taught directly by teachers in the open air, whilst following guidance on social distancing provided by the Ministry of Health. The guidance included keeping a distance of two metres, wearing masks and gloves throughout the duration of the class, and using hand sanitizers.

Challenges for the new approach to learning

Lack of access and familiarity with EdTech

With the vast majority of Afghanistan having unreliable internet and those under Taliban control having no access at all, most students do not have access to digital devices or internet connectivity at home. Amongst those students that can access EdTech, most find the technology is hard to use due to a lack of training and familiarity with the platforms and tools. There is significant uncertainty when it comes to using online education platforms in Afghanistan.

Limited training and resourcing

It is also apparent that education standards have fallen during school closures in Afghanistan. During an interview conducted for this research, a private school principal in Kabul said that “school teachers received no formal training during the pandemic”. Many teachers are unfamiliar with EdTech, and schools have not been provided with devices or the necessary materials to enable them to deliver distance learning or to support students or teachers.

Implications for vulnerable groups

The pandemic has greatly increased the challenges faced by girls in Afghanistan. Traditional and patriarchal norms often place restrictions on girls’ movements and social lives, which includes limiting their access to the internet. During a telephone interview, some Afghan girls said that this even extends to accessing education online. With this being one of the few learning options available given the school closures, these girls say their education is being negatively affected.

According to the National Disability Survey of Afghanistan, 196,000 school-age children have some kind of disability but poor economic conditions have undermined efforts by the government to address these students educational needs during the pandemic. In a recent interview, the Executive Director of Community Center for the Disabled said: “I have not seen any such support from the government side neither before COVID-19 nor during the pandemic.”

The next few months

Government officials and education experts fear that schools may not reopen until September 2020 and, at present, in the face of global uncertainty around the course of the pandemic, there is as yet no evidence of plans for adapting the curriculum in a way that can allow students to graduate on the basis of distance learning.

Despite this uncertainty, there are a few steps the government can take to improve the adaptation of education in this time in a way to widen access: i) training teachers to be familiar with the new ways of teaching; ii) adapting TV lessons to be friendly to children with disability, for example, teaching in sign language and iii) working with grassroots organisations to make distance learning work for girls and other marginalised groups in areas where constraints on their movement and access to devices hinders education access.

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