Fostering inclusive education in times COVID-19

In the context of the COVID-19 outbreak that affected 1.6 billion learners worldwide with country-wide school closures, most teachers were forced to adapt to an emergency remote teaching setting relying heavily on digital technologies, reinforcing inequalities of vulnerable learners.

Students from vulnerable backgrounds have been indeed particularly affected, including children and youth from low-income and single-parent families, immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority and indigenous backgrounds, and those with special education needs. They have been deprived of physical learning opportunities, social and emotional support available in schools and extra services such as school meals. Educational processes across the globe have had to be adapted to the containment, and emergency remote learning revealed even more the technological and digital divides hitting the most disadvantaged families.

Factors of exclusion

Inclusive education promotes mutual respect and value for all persons and builds educational environments in which the approach to learning, the institutional culture and the curriculum reflect the value of diversity. In its recent Global Education Monitoring report, UNESCO provides an in-depth analysis of key factors that cause the exclusion of learners in education systems worldwide including background, identity and ability such gender, age, ethnicity or language, but also highlights concrete policy examples from countries managing to deal with them successfully. In addition to the publication, UNESCO also launched PEER, a new website with information on laws and policies regarding inclusion in education for all countries of the world.

European Schoolnet aims to bring innovation in teaching and learning to its key stakeholders. Therefore it has identified a range of resources from current projects to support collaboration, professional development, online safety and STEM teachers, in order to help the school community in this unprecedented situation. Regular online meetings are also held with member Ministries of Education where they present problems they have encountered and/or solutions that they have implemented. For example, in Finland, school psychologists and counsellors can be reached online or through in-person meetings with safety precautions if necessary. In Greece, the Ministry of Education is to recruit 4,500 special educators and 3,000 psychologists and plans to organise training initiatives for educators on how to cope with the pandemic and support students. In Turkey, call centres were created to help parents of children with special needs and a large-scale research to analyse the impact of those call centres is currently taking place.

A holistic approach to education

As Lucie Cerna, Analyst in the Directorate for Education and Skills of the OECD, pointed out, a holistic approach to education – that addresses students' learning, social and emotional needs – is crucial, especially in times of crisis. Closures can have considerable effects on students' sense of belonging to schools and their feelings of self-worth – these are key for inclusion in education. The long-term social and emotional impacts on students may be the most lasting legacy of the COVID-19 crisis. Considerable joint efforts by school leaders, teachers, parents, students, educational and health care professionals, and communities will be needed to (re-)create schools as safe, supportive and inclusive places for all students.

So rethinking the future of education is now crucial and an opportunity that must be seized by policy-makers to tackle those inequalities.