The COVID-19 pandemic must be seen as an opportunity to repair exclusion in the education sector, finding ways to reach the hundreds of million children that have been left out of education across African countries. I put myself in an imaginary, much-needed role as Minister of Child Learning and Thriving and ask myself: how do we ensure that African children everywhere continue to learn?

Firstly, rather than getting children into a school, we must bring learning to each child where they are. We can learn from organisations that manage this in situations of conflict and humanitarian emergency. COVID-19 can set a new precedent for how we nurture learning, beyond crises. Secondly, children with special needs require tailored support to avoid losing skills they’ve acquired. For example, a child who has spent 8 years learning his first words could quickly lose language if attention is not sustained.

In addition, we must look ahead with a futurist lens to the skills that these children will need in the not-so-distant future. With the pandemic, the definition of social interactions is changing: new rules about personal space, physical contact, how we show affection and familiarity, the heightened need for emotional intelligence. For children with autism or other developmental challenges, these are often the hardest skills to retain. And in a world where facial expressions are hidden behind masks, and verbal and non-verbal cues (intonation, choice of words, gestures) are distorted through digital channels, children will need to become experts in these new ways of communicating.  


Such a significant shift in communication impacts language development and throws a spanner in the meaning of special education. With that in mind, I am rethinking what social and emotional development looks like in the pandemic context. All the rigid assessment tools and behavioural checklists that we work with in childhood development may quickly become obsolete as social dynamics shift. We need leadership that is willing to innovate and rethink education radically; we need to leverage technology and make it accessible across the board and we need to remain highly adaptable to the reality that children must now learn to navigate.

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