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The Plight of Public Schools in Africa

While COVID-19 has disrupted the lives and learning of hundreds of millions of children around the world, it has hit Africa’s underfunded public education systems the hardest. High data prices and the lack of adequate digital infrastructure are exacerbating existing inequities and reversing decades of progress.

MASERU – The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vast, systemic inequalities of access and opportunity in education systems around the world. While school closures and the shift to distance learning have taken a heavy toll on hundreds of millions of schoolchildren, underfunded public schools in Africa have been hit the hardest. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is all but impossible to innovate and advance without sufficient resources or infrastructure.

Lesotho, a small lower-middle-income country in southern Africa, is a case in point. According to a recent United Nations report, only 83% of the country’s children have been able to return to school since in-person classes resumed. In a country like Lesotho, where nearly 40% of the population is under 18, and just four out of ten children enroll in secondary education, this amounts to a full-blown crisis that threatens to reverse decades of progress on learning outcomes and access to quality education.

Between April and August 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted 57 remote interviews with students, parents, teachers, and public officials across Africa about the pandemic’s effects on education. When schools closed at the start of the pandemic, many children effectively stopped learning. Many of them shared feelings of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression owing to the lack of contact with their friends and teachers at school. Some children living in extreme poverty were denied access not only to educational opportunities but also to free school meals, resulting in malnutrition. Girls’ education also suffered significant setbacks, as many female students were expected to perform household chores instead of learning.

But those enrolled in public schools have suffered the most, as the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities between private and public education across the continent. A teacher from a rural public primary school told Human Rights Watch that his school did not have computers, and that the teachers lacked the computer skills to make remote learning effective. A laboratory administrator from a private school, on the other hand, said that all of her students were using digital services like Google Classroom even before the pandemic. While students and teachers in her school encountered various difficulties related to remote learning, all of them managed to keep up with schoolwork. Her school, she added, even developed a customized learning platform that enabled teachers to interact with students and conduct online exams.

The transition to remote learning has been difficult for poorer and more affluent households alike. Even tech-savvy parents often feel that remote learning is ineffective. Most parents believe in the importance of physical interaction between students and teachers, expect teacher feedback in the form of marked schoolwork to evaluate their children’s progress, and attend school meetings to meet teachers in person. But while richer students were familiar with technology, having computers and mobile phones at home and access to computer labs and high-speed internet at school, students from lower-income families in rural public schools lacked basic technical skills.

The high cost of mobile data is one of the biggest barriers to remote learning in Africa. With schools closed, many children with no computer at home relied on their parents’ mobile phones to attend classes, but some parents refused, citing steep data costs and limited storage. Others could not afford to buy a smartphone. But even richer parents with children in private schools found it difficult to deal with increased data usage, as the pandemic curbed their incomes, too.

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Moreover, the lack of reliable internet access made synchronous instruction extremely difficult, if not impossible. Glitches and connectivity issues often compromised students’ learning, and teachers struggled to ensure that students were attentive and understood the material.

Sky-high data prices are a continent-wide problem that negatively affects learning across Africa. To address it, governments must force mobile providers to lower prices and offer discounted data plans to students and teachers. Alternatively, governments could grant subsidies to companies willing to provide schoolchildren and their parents with free data and devices.

Remote learning has become an integral part of education, and video-conferencing services like Zoom are likely here to stay, regardless of public-health crises. It is essential to develop learning-management systems that enable teachers to deliver lessons effectively, engage students during class activities, and provide accessible tools to assess their progress. Teachers must also become more adept at using these new platforms.

To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education (SDG4), which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” African governments must address the educational inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. But first, policymakers must provide the necessary resources to create safe and equitable learning environments for all students, whether they attend a private or public school.