The COVID-19 crisis has had a strong impact on the education of almost all children and young people across the EU and beyond.
Globally, over 1.37 billion children had to stay out of the classroom. Governments had to shift their educational systems to digital education. As a result, education changed, with the rise of e-learning and remote teaching on digital platforms.
In some cases, this transition worked well, but in others it did not, creating many difficulties for students, children and their parents.
These difficulties particularly affected the most vulnerable and marginalised communities and low-income families, such as children from Romani backgrounds.
They are not only highly exposed to health threats due to their housing situations, but they also face educational consequences, as they rarely have access to distant or remote learning or home schooling at all.
This ultimately leads to educational gaps or total education breakdown in times of a pandemic like COVID-19.
These issues have already been discussed several times by national education ministries and the Commission, including a recent videoconference organised by the Croatian EU Council Presidency in late May.
“There is no doubt that beyond the COVID-19 crisis, the digital divide is a massive barrier to educational fairness”
They exchanged best practices around how to meet the issues confronting the education sector.
They also discussed how to adapt education and training systems, including different organisational and safety measures as well as school leaving exams, enrolments to higher education and the continuation of learning mobility to the current and to future challenges.
The planned European Education Area – which aims to be up and running by 2025 – aims to reduce crossborder barriers that hamper learning, studying and conducting research, and ensure that spending time abroad to study, learn or work becomes the norm.
In this regard, the Commission has introduced the Digital Education Action Plan, with measures to increase the use of digital technology and learning, including the improvement of digital competences and skills, helping Member States to meet the challenges of the digital age.
There is no doubt that this EU-level approach is necessary. The lack of education reform in many countries has been a cause for deep concern.
For years, EU Member States have failed to do their utmost to promote – and more crucially, invest in – their education systems. Poverty continues to increase and social inequalities persist.
Due to deeply anchored antigypsyism, even before the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, participation of children with Romani backgrounds in education systems was below that of the majority population, particularly in the field of compulsory primary and secondary education.
The proportion of Romani people without any formal education remains extremely high. With the COVID- 19 crisis, these disadvantages and deficits have become even more pressing.
“We need to shape the future of education in the EU differently, with a real focus on inclusion and fairness as well as delivering a significant budget for the educational systems in Member States and for educational programmes at EU level”
Therefore, the European Education area must lead to true fairness in education, by adding an additional point to the Digital Education Action Plan.
It must recognise the importance of overcoming educational segregation, social exclusion and the digital divide. Here, we need methods to be adapted to particular situations, putting each vulnerable young person at the heart of the process.
The complete lack of technological devices and access to education leads to a total educational breakdown for students from vulnerable and marginalised groups.
Recent data has highlighted that there are significant differences between the educational accomplishments of students who have a computer at home that they can use for learning and those students that do not.
However, there is no doubt that beyond the COVID-19 crisis, the digital divide is a massive barrier to educational fairness, not only from the perspective of technology in schools, but also in the context of access to technology in homes.
Without access to basic facilities, a general digital learning experience remains unreachable for socially excluded groups.
Providing for and the funding of, digital devices for families would therefore make a huge contribution. More investment in digital infrastructure, such as the extension of broadband, to access high-speed internet, is unfortunately still not a reality for many EU households.
Slowly, Member States are trying to find ways back to normal life, but it is already clear that young people have been particularly affected by the crisis. They were not only cut off from their peers and normal daily activities but are now facing uncertainty over their future job prospects.
Therefore, the European Youth and Education Programmes such as ERASMUS+ and the Solidarity Corps will play a significant role following the COVID-19 crisis in supporting the recovery.
These programmes contribute to a more inclusive society, promote and strengthen learning opportunities and offer ways to show solidarity.
Hopefully, we will soon overcome the COVID-19 crisis and build on lessons learned regarding the education sector.
We need to shape the future of education in the EU differently, with a real focus on inclusion and fairness as well as delivering a significant budget for the educational systems in Member States and for educational programmes at EU level.