libe2_ Chris JacksonGetty Images for Sentebale_lesothoschool Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Sentebale

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.

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