Education in Emergencies and the Fallout From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Aug. 26, 2021

by Samantha Libraty, MPA '23 for Annotations Blog

Disruptions in education affect millions of children throughout the world. Whether from a natural disaster, war, trauma, or pandemic, the repercussions of disrupted or incomplete education are felt for generations. Individual countries and organizations must step up to fill gaps, but what is the international community doing to focus on education during dire times?

An empty classroom
Source: Unsplash. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Yayoi Segi-Vltchek serves as the Chief of Section for Migration, Displacement, Emergencies and Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where she has led UNESCO’s efforts to address the global education landscape within the current pandemic.

Overall, every education system and population of children has been affected by the COVID pandemic, says Segi-Vltchek, who has held positions in the Middle East and South America.

Using her vast experience in migration and displacement situations, Segi-Vltchek explains the past knowledge her team has gained from emergency education situations. From there, she highlights the difficulty of capacity-building across the world. 

As she suggests, it is in the best interest of both the international community and individual nations to address the gap in education in emergencies for current and future scenarios.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What is UNESCO’s role in education in emergencies?

We have a global section responsible for global migration, displacement, emergencies and education. What we are trying to do is share important knowledge with member states and external partners. The education department was founded by UNESCO in 1949 and that agency [UNRWA] works on education in protracted situations. The knowledge they have—tools, policies, and materials—is impressive, especially for a long-term situation. They have managed to maintain education systems for over half a million children in place for the past 70 years. 

Even during the COVID-19 situation, they adapted  quickly, with years of experience in distance education. The COVID-19 experience can also inform what else to look at in order to build stronger education systems in the future.

We are increasingly focused on the issue of data in educational and emergency situations. Specifically, we look at data for enrollment, number of teachers available, and number of materials distributed. But since emergency situations tend to be more protracted in recent times, unfortunately we need to look at it from the development track. So, that means having better monitoring and  data management system capacities within ministries of education. We are doing this at the global level and also supporting member states to strengthen capacities to better use data and to stay on top of it.

What can nations and local jurisdictions do to address the issue?

For the issue of school reopenings, for instance, that involved ministers of health, ministers of social development, teacher unions, and teacher education institutions. So, it was a lot of coordination across departments. UNICEF, for example, advised ministers of education and other authorities on how best to address schools and learning overall. Education provides support to many children and families, so there was a real need to address the issue.

When it comes to the refugee situation (both displaced and general migration) it’s necessary to coordinate with different partners at the national and regional level. Often, issues such as education take a backseat because of the huge impact of COVID-19. The impact on the education system as a whole is enormous, so we have seen a shrinking space where we can raise awareness about finances to support children and young people in displaced migrant situations. Whether children require policy support or technical support is different from one country to another and depends on the context.

In your opinion, whose responsibility is it to address the issue? Is it up to the nations, local governments, or the international community?

I think education in emergencies should be a collective responsibility. Obviously, the national governments bear the responsibility with respect to providing the right to education.That’s fundamental. Regardless of the situation, they are under enormous strain. National government responses depend on the type of economy, stage of development, and if they are confronted with ongoing crisis situations or emergency situations. We  can support these efforts through a strong international system that already has contingency plans. Perhaps no country is well prepared to respond to this unprecedented pandemic situation, but some countries are better prepared than others, simply because there is a strong state. With strong contingency planning in place, reserve funds are available to support this kind of crisis situation. It is a collective responsibility, but what we would like to see is a responsibility of national governments, since they need to prioritize education as they do other sectors. UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have a strong voice, and the three agencies have come together the past year to bring strong advocacy points.

COVID-19 has exacerbated situations in which education was already disrupted, including war and natural disasters. What are some of the strategies to mitigate the double disruption in those places?

One case to illustrate the trend is Venezuela. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are receiving huge numbers of Venezuelan refugees. These countries have opened up their education systems to include vulnerable migrant populations. They’ve done quite a lot of work, including providing learning opportunities and training teachers—and that was before COVID. Once the schools were shut down, the countries needed to put distance education programs in place. It is easier to provide these distance learning opportunities for nationalized children than for refugee and migrant children, since they are not necessarily long-term. Parents may have lost their livelihoods or jobs and had to move, but they might go back. This all requires national support.

In some situations—like in Jordan—as long as funding continues, learning continues. UN agencies, like UNHCR, are responsible for camp management and could sustain such programs or provisional services. It was easier to provide support and put together those distance learning programs with existing systems in place.

Around the world, education was one of the first sectors to receive cuts in funding because schools were not open. That was one of the  justifications from the ministers of finance or treasury that I heard again and again.

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Meet the Author: Samantha Libraty

Samantha Libraty, MPA ‘23, was a contractor at the U.S. Department of State, having worked within the Office of International Religious Freedom for the past three years. Samantha is passionate about educational equity; she is the co-founder and COO of Fascination Lab, an education startup, bringing experiential learning to classrooms and professional development programs. Samantha is currently a graduate student at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.