COVID-19 and distance teaching must not widen inequalities in education

The COVID 19 outbreak is a public health crisis quite different than anything Europe has faced for many years. As education personnel and their trade unions grapple with the outbreak, we are supporting and informing member organisations in any way we can.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken in response by governments have an impact on us all. But some individuals are more affected than others and the crisis is hitting the most vulnerable groups the hardest: people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and rural communities. This is especially true in education institutions where staff are having to experiment with remote teaching. ETUCE calls on education authorities and governments to ensure the inclusion of all students and education staff in these critical times, so that the COVID-19 outbreak does not magnify existing social inequalities.

In a recently published bulletin, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) brought attention to the implications of the pandemic for fundamental rights, especially focussing on the impacts of measures taken by EU governments like social distancing. The FRA report shows that the virus is particularly dangerous for people who already live in difficult conditions and lack access to hygiene facilities and medical services. Many migrants and asylum seekers – among them numerous unaccompanied children – live in overcrowded camps with very limited access to hygiene, health care and education services. The FRA also highlights the inadequate working and living situation of many Roma people and other ethnic minorities and the increasing number of reports about racism and discrimination linked to the outbreak. The European Disability Forum calls attention to the increasingly difficult circumstances for people with disabilities, who face – in addition to the threat of COVID-19 itself – disrupted health services and social support, a lack of information and other barriers.

The current crisis exposes and magnifies existing inequalities in many areas of life, and the education sector is no exception. With most countries in Europe closing education institutions and forcing teachers, academics and other education personnel to work from home, many questions arise about the impact of these circumstance on the quality and inclusiveness of education. As the FRA points out, learners do not only have very unequal access to the internet, computers and other digital tools; some groups like refugee and migrant families are also very difficult to reach with information or services. Moreover, many children lack the supportive environment needed for learning at home.

Issues that have been neglected for a long time are now hitting hard in this moment of crisis. For example, we now see more clearly than ever that teachers have unequal access to professional development and professional support. This is especially to the disadvantage of women and/or migrant teachers and those working in rural areas. Many teachers and other education personnel have also not been supported to develop an high level of ICT proficiency, which has now suddenly become essential for distance teaching. What is more, the lack of teachers with competences and teaching materials for working with special needs students, in a multicultural setting, or with disadvantaged students is even more problematic than usual, as it penalises exactly those groups of learners who need extra support in the current situation. The European Disability Forum calls for equal access to education services for employees and students with disabilities, and the provision of measures like sign interpretation, live captioning and adapted work.

ETUCE insists that issues regarding the accessibility of distance teaching and learning material, for teachers and students, must be addressed so that all education personnel and students are able to participate in quality education as required by their local circumstances. We must not allow anyone to be left behind because they do not have access to appropriate digital devices and online tools, not because they face specific individual or social barriers.

However, it is important to recognise that the problems now brought so sharply into focus are not the result of this sudden crisis. They are a predictable consequence of governments’ continuing neglect of the public sector. Therefore, long-term measures will be necessary. In a statement on tackling the COVID-19 crisis, ETUCE recalls that only education systems based on public service values, sufficient public investment, and democratic governance can rise to the challenges that our societies now face. In the domain of equality, this reflects the demands of the ETUCE, EFEE and ESHA Joint Statement on Inclusive Schools, which asks for adequate continuous teacher training, economic and political support, enough support personnel, as well as inclusive provisions for digitalisation. Both statements also highlight the crucial role of social dialogue in implementing effective inclusion in education. with that in mind, education trade unions are ready to play their part in shaping, upholding and rebuilding equal and sustainable societies where education is a public good.