COVID-19 has disrupted education for all learners but has had an acute and profound effect on refugee and displaced learners who were already facing unique obstacles in accessing, staying in, and completing education prior to the pandemic. It is estimated that refugee learners lost an average of 142 days of schooling from the first school closure at the onset of the pandemic up to March 2021 (UNHCR, 2021).
The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing risks to academic success (impacting both retention and progression), while also magnifying inequities by negatively affecting the most vulnerable children, adolescents, and youth – particularly in low and lower- middle income countries. The impact has been devastating on refugee learners, who often do not have adequate access to digital infrastructure, devices or connectivity.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR and partners had worked for a decade to demonstrate the viability and value of investing in digital learning, working in a select number of contexts. However, as the world becomes increasingly digitally dependent, it is being recognised that these investments need to be dramatically scaled up to ensure all refugees, and their host communities, are digitally included.
During the COVID-19 pandemic related school closures, digital learning modalities were rapidly scaled up by governments and education actors providing a critical resource for ensuring continuity of learning. A variety of multimodal approaches was deployed across the globe to support teaching and learning processes. However, a significant digital divide prevented many learners, especially refugee and displaced learners in low-resourced contexts, from meaningful participation in continuous learning programmes. Despite early investments, UNHCR estimates that 57 per cent of refugee or displaced learners who were enrolled in school prior to COVID-19 pandemic were not supported by any digital or home learning programme during school closures.
When this number is combined with the estimates of refugees who are out-of-school, it is estimated that globally there were 78 per cent of refugee children with limited-to- no access to learning opportunities, during pandemic-related school closures.
Educational responses to COVID-19 school closures have demonstrated the need for greater and more thoughtful digital learning approaches that can be utilized during school disruptions but also within the classroom and to support remedial learning. However, as these investments are made, it is vital they are developed with a focus on inclusion. This means designing approaches that meet the needs of all students and communities, including those in low-resource and low-tech contexts. It is also imperative for these communities, including those hosting refugees, to be targeted for greater digital investments to help narrow the digital divide. It is vital that Governments, education partners, and the private sector identify concrete plans and commitments that will assist in ensuring that all learners are able to benefit from today’s digital advancements and national digital learning investments, including ensuring the meaningful inclusion of refugee and displaced learners.