Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 22, 2020 4 min read
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As millions of children worldwide wait for their schools to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations finds many countries—the United States included—could face an uphill road to find, include, and engage their most vulnerable students after classes restart.

“Even before the crisis, we knew that almost 260 million children and young people around the world were not in education,” said Manos Antoninis, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Global Education Monitoring Report, released today. “And now, when we think about COVID-19, the question globally is whether some of those students who were in school may not return after the academic alarm is off. ... This is a big risk which we know very little about.”

That’s because a significant number of students worldwide felt disconnected from or unsafe in school even before the widescale school closures this spring, and some of the most marginalized students—those in poverty, or from racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities, and those with disabilities—are less likely than their peers to connect with education remotely during the disruption.

Since 2015, UNESCO has tracked global progress on establishing quality education for all children by 2030, one of the group’s “Sustainable Development Goals.” This year’s report focused on countries’ capacity for “inclusive education,” not just for students with disabilities but for all educationally marginalized groups.

Among the report’s findings:

  • More than 40 percent of countries, representing 13 percent of people worldwide, cannot track education data by student characteristics such as gender, race, income, and disability status.
  • Students with disabilities make up 15 percent of all children who do not take part in schooling at all, and only 10 percent of countries have laws calling for full classroom inclusion.
  • The United States has smaller gaps in reading and math achievement by income and gender than the global average

Countries’ efforts around inclusive education have by and large focused on literal infrastructure—"the right doors and ramps,” Antoninis said—but the report called for education systems to identify ways to make students and their families feel safer and more connected to school communities.

“Often children get alienated, especially in poor countries, because the education offered is not very relevant,” he said. “They need to see themselves reflected in school: their group, their background, where they come from. If you want to achieve the learning outcomes, we need to ensure that children around the world feel a sense of belonging through the education experience.”

That includes in the United States, where UNESCO noted a third of 15-year-olds reported feeling like “outsiders” on campus.

“The United States ranks alongside the Dominican Republic among countries with the highest degree of students who feel they don’t belong in school,” Antoninis said. “That’s well above the global average and is something that is for them to investigate and do something about.”

“This spring has not even been a perfect storm, but more of rolling waves—COVID, the economy, the [racial] unrest—that are just layering on more and more anxiety, particularly for students of color,” said Sandra Timmons, the interim executive director of the Steve Fund, a nonprofit focused on mental health supports for marginalized children.

School support interventions during school closures may be treating vulnerable groups of students as “separate and discrete,” ignoring how different kinds of marginalization pile up, Timmons said. “In many cases, they are very much related: poverty and racism in various forms such as microaggressions or stereotypes, as well as displacement from school. As you continue to layer on some of these pieces, you see the trauma about them increasing and being perhaps harder to address and deal with.”

The report urges countries to reevaluate how their policies and budgets support education and engagement for vulnerable student groups, as well as how schools and teachers work to connect with students during the pandemic.

“There has been, we believe, a little bit too much focus [during the pandemic] on all the distance-learning solutions that are being used right now around the world, because to some extent people imagine that maybe this is the answer for the future,” Antoninis said. “However, it’s very important to know many marginalized young people lost any touch with their teachers during this, even in the richest country—even in the Los Angeles school district, we know that almost one-third of the secondary-school population lost contact with their teachers during the pandemic. And if you look at the poorest countries, only 12 percent of households have access to the internet at home. ... So we’re talking globally about a major crisis that has completely rooted these young people out of education all together.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.