On Thursday, November 19, the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) hosted their second webinar in the LERRN-IDRC webinar series to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on refugee education. The webinar attracted over 160 participants and viewers on social media platforms spanning across 18 countries, bringing together scholars, practitioners, and stakeholders from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
Based on the findings of a recent report, “Education Under COVID-19 Lockdown: Reflections from Teachers, Students, & Parents, written by LERRN partners at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, the webinar drew on the perspectives of researchers and innovators to consider how local solutions can be mobilized in response to current challenges posed by COVID-19 on refugee education. The distinguished speakers, Mai Abu Moghli, Elaine Chase, Marwan Tarazi, Abdullahi Mire, Jennifer Roberts, and Evelyn Jepkemei, highlighted the significant effects the pandemic has had on students, teachers, and parents throughout East Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The panellists expressed their concerns over the profound negative long-term impact of disruptions to education during the pandemic, including the loss of previous learning and literacy skills, poor learning outcomes, student dropout (especially girls in secondary schools), fewer students continuing to secondary school, and early forced marriages.
Reflecting on the report findings, Mai Abu Moghli and Elaine Chase emphasized the significant impact the pandemic has had on the education of refugees and other marginalized in Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. The combination of lockdowns, weak infrastructure, and gaps in distance learning limited support to teachers in public schools, Moghli stressed, produced “a severe setback of access and quality of teaching and learning for most vulnerable children.” Moreover, parents and teachers face particular challenges as they struggle to manage these new learning realities and the impact on students’ social and psychological well-being.
Elaine Chase, focusing on the role of teachers in the context of mass displacement, emphasized the importance of understanding the needs of local communities and providing needs-informed professional development opportunities for teachers and learners. Drawing on the work of the RELIEF Centre, a platform that responds to teachers’ professional development needs in Lebanon, Chase offered insights on how online digital resources can be harnessed to transform education in challenging environments. In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the RELIEF Centre rapidly designed an open online course on online teaching, accessible in English and Arabic for teachers across the MENA region. Since the course’s launch in April, 35,000 teachers have benefitted from the training, and an additional Lebanese organization has also engaged refugee students in robotics, helping them form a positive identity on the world stage for their creativity and innovation.
Echoing the challenges and opportunities for distance learning in the MENA region, Marwan Tarazi outlined a series of online experiential learning modules designed by the Centre for Continuing Education at Birzeit University. With support from the IDRC, the Centre for Continuing Education provides learning modules structured around curriculum topics that students in Lebanon can use independently, incorporated by teachers in their classes, or utilized by trained mentors in refugee communities to help learners.
Abdullahi Mire, drawing attention to how COVID-19 has forced massive shutdowns that disproportionately affect refugee education due to the “digital divide,” highlighted the challenges refugee learners experience in the Dadaab Refugee Camp. With present limits to stable internet connections and delays in developing a public library, Mire described how COVID-19 made already existing challenges that much worse. Before the pandemic, only three percent of student refugees had access to university education. The Dadaab Response Association members have already published two working papers on teacher training and exam practices to illuminate these challenges. Another two that address female student dropout rates and corporal punishment in refugee schools are underway.
Jennifer Roberts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Evelyn Jepkemei from the World University Services Canada (WUSC) also expressed concerns regarding the effects of lockdowns on learners’ educational progression, particularly on the gradual learning loss. With many homes unable to access online learning technologies, radio and TV sets, phones, and even books, 90 percent of half the refugees enrolled in schools have been affected by pandemic disruptions. Roberts described how this affects students’ learned skills and erodes their literacy and reading capabilities, with young girls being especially susceptible to dropping out at higher rates and not resuming their education. During the webinar, she stated, “the situation is dire,” and there is “an emergency in refugee education around the world.” Providing insights on the challenges parents face with distance learning, Jepkemei highlighted how language provides an additional barrier for parents when assisting children with learning from home. She also emphasized the need to advocate for refugee education and provide incentives that promote retention of refugee learners, especially measures that encourage refugee girls’ education.
Despite the complexities that COVID-19 presents for refugee education, the panelist concluded that the pandemic offers an opportunity to build back better and implement creative ideas in education, including new ways of learning, training teachers, and distance learning pathways. A key takeaway, they collectively echoed, was the need to support and empower refugee-led and community-led responses. As Jepkemei pointed out, “there are always organic solutions that come out of communities.” Some noteworthy initiatives include the Refugee Youth Education Hub, a refugee-led organization in Dadaab that connects high schools within the community with schools in Canada and the United States. The organization has also collected approximately 50,000 books in a book drive for refugee children and is expected to launch Dadaab’s first-ever public library. WUSC in Kenya created short training modules about online teaching to share with teachers in WhatsApp groups, in addition to a weekly WhatsApp meeting.
These vast and innovative initiatives provide valuable lessons for the enhancement of refugee education during and beyond the pandemic.