Covid-19 Widens Learning Gap For Girls In Rural Ghana

By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

Seventeen-year-old Muniratu Adams, a form two student of the Jeyiri D/A Junior High School at Funsi in the Wa East District of the Upper West Region of Ghana, is fortunate to have returned to school this January after the long COVID-19 shutdown.

Ghana’s education sector was one of the hardest affected by the pandemic and for many girls, particularly those in rural areas, the consequences of school closures means many will never return to their schooling.

“It was difficult for me to come back to school,” she tells IPS. “When I was home, I did not think I will be able to return to school.”

Adams was like many girls here who had to take on more responsibilities at home during the lockdown.

Sarah and Doris ride to school on their bicycles because they live several kilometres away. Ghana’s education sector was one of the hardest affected by the pandemic and for many girls, particularly those in rural areas, the consequences of school closures means many will never return to their schooling. Credit: Jamila Akweley Okertchiri/IPS

“I had little time to study my books because I had more household chores to do and I also had to help my family farm for food which we survive on,” she explains. “When I get to learn, I don’t get the help I need,” she adds.

Last March, Ghana closed schools in the wake of rising COVID-19 infections across the country.

Approximately 9.2 million learners from Kindergarten to High School and about 500,000 tertiary learners were affected until schools opened in mid-January, according to a report by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

However, the prolonged absence of teaching and learning activities in a structured setting disrupted the academic calendar affecting the gains made in education and negatively impacting low performing students.

For many children from vulnerable groups, including children with disabilities, the prolonged school closures have put a premature end to their education.

Prior to the pandemic, UNICEF data for Ghana showed that 16.9 percent of children aged 5 to 11 years, 50.9 percent of children aged 12 to 14 years, and 83.3 percent of children aged 15 to 17 years were either not attending school, two or more years behind in school, or have not achieved the correct level of schooling for their grade. 

The pandemic’s impacts on children’s access and quality of education were most severely felt through the tracking closure of schools without adequate alternative education services accessible by all children, nation-wide.

This exacerbated existing inequities in education in the short and long- terms and worsened existing barriers to access as urban/rural disparities are significant, with children in rural areas, as well as in the Northern and Upper West regions faring far worse.

Adams says initially she was unable to continue with her studies at home during the closure of schools as she did not have the tools to facilitate her studies.

“My parents did not have a television or a radio at home so I read only my notes ,which I had before our school was closed,” she says.  “But later I got a mobile device which helped me to learn through the remote learning system.”

Remote Learning Impact

Ghana’s government, with funding from the World Bank, introduced a $15 million, one-year remote learning system as part of the COVID-19 response for continued learning, recovery and resilience for basic education. 

It included developing accessible and inclusive learning modules through TV and radio, distributing printed teaching and learning materials, distributing pre-loaded content devices to vulnerable groups who lack access to technology, and in-service teacher training to ensure teachers can effectively deliver lessons through innovative platforms.

Despite the remote learning platforms, Adams says she and some students in her community still faced a lot of challenges in ensuring equitable access to these services, because “we do not have access to online learning devices or the internet at home”.

“A large number of us in my community lack technology such as TV sets, computers, smart phones and other online devices, as well as stable internet connectivity,” Adams says.

Chief Director of the Ministry of Education, Benjamin Kofi Gyasi, who is also the COVID-19 focal person for education, tells IPS that while remote learning strategies aim to ensure continual learning for all children, “we know that the most marginalised children, including those in the most rural, hard-to-reach and poorest communities and girls, may not be able to access these opportunities.”

He adds that the ministry is prioritising the learning of most vulnerable children through the provision of learning devices/equipment and connectivity, where possible, adding that the initiative has reached more than half of targeted learners.

Executive Director of the African Education Watch, Kofi Asare, tells IPS that more children have been left behind as a result of the pandemic. He believes the government can do more to ensure that vulnerable children especially those in the remote and poorest communities of the country have the tools needed to access quality education.

‘Now the children are back to the classrooms but I can confidently say that we have lost a significant number due to the long period schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he asserts.

His statement is confirmed by Adams, who says some girls in her class are yet to return more than five months after schools reopened.

“I have not seen some of my friends since we started school in January, I do not know if they will be coming or not,” she tells IPS. “My friend, Hassana Yakubu who came to school here from another community has still not returned.”

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