Since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, governments in the Pacific Islands have implemented school closures to curb transmission and protect children’s lives. These measures are consistent with the containment measures used in many countries around the world and reflect a strong government interest in protecting the lives of citizens. However, these measures do not provide economic support for families or adequate structures to ensure e-learning consistently across the student body. Therefore, this decision simultaneously undermined progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – universal access to primary and secondary education.
According to UNICEF, âSchools do more than teach children to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health and hygiene services; mental health and psychosocial support; and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more. The most vulnerable children are “the hardest hit by school closures.” The longer they stay out of school, “the less likely they are to return.”
The economic problems associated with COVID-19 have exacerbated this crisis as some families cannot afford the transportation, equipment and tuition associated with education. JosÃ©phine Teakeni, president of Vois Blong Mere, says COVID-19 has forced families to “delay the education of their children while they find ways to get money to pay for school fees”, for send them back in 2022. Some families have risked “taking out loans from formal and informal financial institutions to pay school fees or support income-generating initiatives.”
Overall, the ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 situation underscores that strong government responses are both necessary and laudable. This is especially evident in light of the introduction of new COVID-19 mutations like the Delta variant, which is both more infectious and deadly and has led to a spike in cases around the world. School closures are an appropriate tool when implemented in response to medical advice to protect the right to life. However, to protect children’s rights to education, such closures should be accompanied by an appropriate framework for distance learning. To date, such a framework has not been implemented successfully or consistently.
Improving access to quality education has long been a high priority for the Pacific Islands, in large part due to their demographic makeup. The Pacific Islands are home to 11.9 million people, more than half of the population under 23. As education is linked to other SDGs such as poverty reduction, reduction of gender inequalities and economic growth, the future development of the region depends on the access of its young people to school. However, it also faces a myriad of challenges to improving access, such as geography, equity gaps, and limited data to inform improvements. As a result of these challenges, the Pacific Islands were making slow progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4. Today, even these modest gains have been affected by COVID-19.
Governments must increase access to education to improve development outcomes and promote human security in the Pacific Islands. First, it requires improving distance learning for all students through innovative strategies adapted to local contexts, such as radio lessons. Second, governments must formulate plans to reopen schools safely, such as the provision of masks and hygiene kits. Given the economic fallout from COVID-19, it is highly likely that international aid will be needed to help fund these projects, at least in the short term. However, as a collection of small island states, their issues rarely receive international media attention and subsequently garner less attention. Ultimately, media training is essential for the Pacific Islands to see their predicament in education heard and supported by the international community.