As children across Europe and North America trickle back into schools, we look to their counterparts across the world. How are children, in countries like Madagascar, Afghanistan and Haiti, returning to school?

According to a 2020 UN report, the COVID-19 pandemic has created “the largest disruption to education systems around the world, affecting 1.6 billion learners across 190 countries.” As schools across Europe and North America, anticipate the start of the term, the question has never been if they will return to school, but how they will continue shaping young minds in the ‘new normal’.

For those in countries already trapped in a cycle of poverty in disaster and conflict zones, the current COVID-19 pandemic threatens to rob an entire generation of opportunity. In these countries, stretching humanitarian response funding and ensuring that COVID-19 doesn’t spread further takes centre stage. The issue of school reopening and education is sadly not a top priority.

CARE’s Humanitarian Policy Advocacy Coordinator & UN Representative, Delphine Pinault, paints a grim picture. “Humanitarian Response Plans in some of the largest crises are hardly funded. Afghanistan is only 28% funded and Haiti 16%. Venezuela remains a shocking 8% funded, while another two of the highest priority humanitarian crises countries — Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are amongst the worst funded at 24% and 22% respectively. We need to redouble our efforts to advocate for funding for the existing Humanitarian Response Plans.”

Dubbed ‘one of the most fragile countries in the world’, over the last decade, citizens of Afghanistan have borne witness to an unprecedented surge in conflicts, avalanches, drought, floods, and landslides. During the pandemic, the country’s 9.2 million students (39% of which are girls), have found themselves without regular schooling and with no real clarity as to how, when, or if they can go back.

“With such shocks and under such mounting pressure, some children may never return to school,” stresses Rachel Hartgen, CARE’s Education Director. “Their families are having to make hard choices in such harsh contexts.”

“Extended school closures correlate with an increase in drop-outs, put children at risk for protection issues, such as child labour, Gender Based Violence (including domestic violence and early marriage), and diminish learning gains,” said Wahidullah Wahid, CARE Afghanistan’s Education Program Senior Coordinator.

In partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education (MoE), CARE has been distributing radios and TVs to rural, often overlooked communities, to ensure that these children remain connected to teachers, their lessons, and each other. However, while books can be bought, radios distributed and lessons caught up on, the damage done to the mental health of these children remains uncharted territory.

“We’re seeing a rise in reports of severe anxiety—especially among older girls,” said Wahid. Working with local partners, CARE has trained local teachers to address this issue, as well as issues of GBV and forced marriages during his period. More needs to be done.

Despite being on the other side of the world, Haiti is also facing similar challenges to access to education. However, for the children of this country, the interruptions preceded the current pandemic.

Political unrest in the country, which occurred late last year, meant that the schooling for the country’s 2 million students was cut short. The children of Haiti barely had a school term, which for some meant missing out on key nutrition, child development opportunities and socialization.

“In a country with frequent electrical shortages and very few with access to WIFI, distance learning is not a viable option. We’ve had to focus heavily on encouraging students back into schools,” says Claudel Choisy, CARE Haiti’s coordinator in Education. “We’ve adapted canteens to provide more meals to combat malnourishment and are placing emphasis on extra-curricular activities to ensure that they are properly socialized.”

CARE has programs that have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing children to follow social distancing while participating in school related activities and getting nutritious meals.

For the children of, Madagascar — which has battled floods, malaria and COVID-19 this year – students, parents, and teachers alike eagerly await the reopening of schools, which were closed in late March.

“In each school, we’ve now set up a Disaster Risk Reduction club and extra-curricular activities are organized with the aim of promoting safety and risk education through play and peer learning,” says Rakotondravao Ndriana Albert, in the Primary school in Maevatanana.

Teachers have been trained not only in hygiene protocols, but also to deal with a world where children will need that extra-help to reintegrate and refamiliarize themselves with the world of school. When that day is exactly, remains to be seen.

The program implemented by CARE in partnership with Humanity and Inclusion in Madagascar has been a way to support schools in the transition back to school.

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