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Pandemic challenges Catholic Church's education mission in Asia

Millions of young people are set to miss out due to the global education emergency

Pandemic challenges Catholic Church's education mission in Asia

A teacher takes part in a teleconference with students struggling with online learning at a government-sanctioned tutorial class in Taguig City, south of Manila, on March 3. (Photo: AFP)

The world’s accumulated human capital, which creates the wealth of nations, is facing an existential crisis and generational catastrophe.

Of the 1.6 billion students affected in more than 190 countries when the pandemic crisis unfolded, 24 million are set to miss out on education due to the global education emergency.

This threatens to wipe out decades of hard-earned gains in the development of human capital and labor productivity for more than half of these students living in Asia and Africa.

Education remains the mainstay of the Church’s service in Asia and Africa, particularly among the poor, and the Church has invested heavily in education. Will the dropout rate affect the Church’s mission in some way?

The biggest casualty will be the higher education sector as sources to generate income to meet educational expenses are difficult to come by for households.

Many university students, especially girls, will not be able to dust off their textbooks this academic year. Most live in the East Asia and Pacific region.

Toddlers at the pre-primary level are the second most affected and, of 10.9 million primary students, 5.2 million are girls who are not expected to attend school this year, published data shows.

Of late, Asian countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have posted a significant improvement of 30 percent in the enrolment rate for secondary education. In Thailand, women hold 32 percent of senior management posts compared with the global average of 27 percent.

For Asia, which has reported notable achievements in the decline in the number of girls out of school from 30 million to 15 million in the past few decades, the new dropout rates may bring a generational catastrophe.

The number of out-of-school children has declined by 3 million since 2014 in Southeast Asia. India and Pakistan also made great strides in this regard.

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Before the pandemic, Asia was facing a learning crisis. On top of school dropouts, many students were not getting a good-quality education and were finding it difficult to meet basic requirements in reading and mathematics. They were also lacking in competencies and skills including digital literacy.

The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide among Asian students. In the East Asia and Pacific region, 55 percent of males enjoy access to the internet compared with 41 percent of females. This leaves less room for girls to access distance learning and increases the digital gender gap.

Regarding the availability of devices and internet connection, Asian girls are disadvantaged in multi-children households, where the number of children exceeds devices.

The education emergency has taken a toll on the mental health of students due to the prolonged lockdown, financial stress on the family and the lack of a support system.

Already students in Asia are worried over the prolonged school closures and social distancing health protocols.

A recent UNICEF survey found 30 percent of girls felt worried and 28 percent felt sad in the Philippines. Only 14 percent remained calm. Chinese high school students, on the other hand, showed symptoms of depression (46 percent) or anxiety (38 percent).

In Vietnam, 60 percent who took part in a sample survey felt worried and pressured during the pandemic and, in Thailand, three out of four female respondents reported mental health issues like stress, boredom, lack of motivation, and frustration.

The pandemic has taken away from millions of students the undeniable right to education, which plays a vital role in the economic development of a country.

To protect the rights of millions of learners, the Global Education Coalition comprising UN agencies, international organizations, private sector entities, and civil society representatives, led by UNESCO, has come out with a campaign entitled Save our Future.

For the benefit of girls, UNESCO's #LearningNeverStops campaign urges students to return to the classroom when schools safely reopen.

Asia, which is at the risk of the largest share of learners not returning to schools, can explore cross-border learning as an immediate remedy.

For nations across the world, it is not a bad idea to facilitate cross-border learning in the globalized networked world.

It is time Catholic educators in Asia, particularly the religious congregations in education apostolate, came together to look at their work in the pandemic times in the light of Pope Francis’ insistence on a poor Church for the poor.

The methods and systems of education have changed, accelerated by the emergencies and restrictions of the pandemic. Pushing it back to the traditional educational system may be needless and frustrating.

But for a region known for its high rate of school dropouts, the Church has a role to quickly understand the needs and adapt to the changes. Inability to change may render Church institutions irrelevant and outdated, putting the Church’s entire educational investment at stake.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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