What the global pandemic is teaching us: When all else grinds to a halt, the health and well-being of our children must be a primary focus

December 9, 2020
Eugene Melnyk

There has been no shortage of commentary about how governments around the world are faring in the ongoing battle to deal with the Covid-19 global pandemic.

While policies to fight the virus differ across countries, one of the few areas of consensus appears to be the well-being of our children. Keeping our kids in schools wherever health protocols allow should not be negotiable.

Education is such a critical part of a child’s development and the cornerstone of properly functioning societies. I have often remarked that children are our greatest ambassadors and are a reflection of our beliefs and core values. Amid such uncertainty and the challenges facing schools, the continued need to invest in education is all the more apparent.

According to the United Nations, Covid-19 has “created the largest disruption of education systems in history” affecting almost 1.6 billion young minds in over 190 countries, on every continent. That figure represents 94 per cent of the world’s student population who have been out of school. Compare that to 250 million who were out of school before the pandemic began in early 2020.  Most of those impacted – a whopping 99 per cent – live in middle- to low-income countries, according to a UN study paper released in August, 2020.

The consequences of this “disruption” are both fundamental and innumerable. Losing a school year, even if offset by well-intentioned online learning efforts, would have a lifetime ripple effect on our children impacting their academic success, mental health and development of social skills.

The dire statistics in the UN report point to what it calls an “educational crisis” that will inevitably have long-term effects, not just on children, but also on future societies. For one, education is considered a fundamental human right in most countries and is the foundation of the just and equal societies we all enjoy.  However, “when education systems collapse, peace, prosperous and productive societies cannot be sustained,” the UN noted in its policy paper.

At the same time, the World Bank estimates that this generation of students could lose US$10-trillion in earnings over time.

I am proud that The Providence School in Barbados has maintained full, on-campus activities for its approximately 350 students (from Kindergarten through to Grade 12) when classes resumed this past fall. As founder, and chair of the Trustees and Board of Management, I believe it is vital to continue building toward providing the important benefits that accrue to society when young people have access to quality educational experiences.

Of course, this has been not been an easy feat. Barbados, which is heavily dependent on tourism as the main engine of its economy, has been slammed by the pandemic. With border closings and lockdowns worldwide, travel has been severely crimped, resulting in devastating consequences for the tourism industry.  

Even so, schools in Barbados have done an outstanding job of establishing a safe environment for children to continue learning inside the school confines. The social aspects of physically being in a classroom and learning from, and with, their peers cannot be overstated. Kids learn a myriad of important academic and social skills, including how to be accountable for themselves as they interact with their friends and classmates. The school yard is every bit as educational as the classroom – and both experiences cannot be easily replicated online.

Every jurisdiction has its own approach for managing education during the pandemic, but my hope is that governments will continue to keep schools open for as long as safety protocols allow for it. Global experts, including those at the UN, agree this is critical, as they predict the learning crisis if left unchecked, is “becoming a generational catastrophe.”

I am encouraged that governments worldwide are intensely working to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic on education. Perhaps more importantly, at least in the short-term, these efforts are bringing some semblance of normalcy back into the lives of our kids.

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