The First of September is a very special day in Kazakhstan. Coinciding with the first day of school, it is a celebration of knowledge that involves a schoolwide assembly filled with songs, flowers, and warm reunions with teachers and classmates.
In Kazakhstan, schools across the country greet students with the enthusiastic lines from the timeless 1879 poem of a Kazakh educator and scholar, Ybyrai Altynsarin: “Kel, balalar, oqylyq! Come, children, let’s study!” Traditionally, a bell is rung by a first grader and an upperclassman, and the sound of the bell marks not just the beginning of a new academic year, but an important milestone in the lives of students and their families. However, 2020 is sadly different. 2020 is the first year in the history of Kazakhstan when the First of September celebration is taking place online due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global crisis in education around the world, affecting, according to UNESCO, nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries. The nationwide closures of schools and universities have impacted over 94 percent of the world’s student population, including Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan school closures have affected over 16 million learners. As a safety measure against the virus, 2.6 million schoolchildren in Kazakhstan will be studying online this fall.
Since March, the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan has taken rapid response measures and moved most of the schools and universities to distance learning by deploying a mix of technologies, such as e-learning platforms and TV broadcasting.
Despite the measures taken across the sectors, the pandemic has had detrimental effects on each and every person. The assessment on social and economic impact jointly conducted by the UN agencies in Kazakhstan demonstrates that the crisis threatens to reverse human development by impacting livelihoods, health, and the quality of education. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, such as women, young people, persons with disabilities, unemployed and self-employed.
Stringent lockdowns and lack of social interactions with peers have adversely impacted the emotional and physical health of children. Young adults abruptly lost access to quality education, employment, and other social, cultural, and professional opportunities for growth and development. The crisis created a significant increase in unpaid domestic work for women, who are often assigned primary caregiving roles in their families, in addition to balancing work and household chores.
Since March, the UNESCO Almaty Office has engaged with and supported the Ministries of Education in Central Asia through promoting policy dialogue, organizing capacity-building, and developing quality online educational content. UNESCO Almaty is conducting a series of online trainings on various digital tools and distance learning solutions for ministry officials and teachers throughout the year. The trainings will teach instructors to use Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Content Management Systems (CMS), develop high-quality content for distance learning, and assess student work during remote learning.
We also translated and distributed educational content in Russian and Kazakh languages, such as a series of information cards to provide teachers, parents and students with practical tips on living and studying during COVID-19. Developed by the UNESCO Institute for Informational Technologies (IITE) and UNAIDS, the 64 illustrated, user-friendly cards share recommendations on how to take care of work, studies, relationships, physical and mental health during the pandemic.
We reached out to children and youth through a series of hands-on activities and launched an online “Art Connects” course conducted by 30 professionals to improve children’s mental and emotional health through arts and creativity. Based on the course activities, a comprehensive handbook was published to provide a set of art therapy techniques for parents and special education instructors during lockdown. To create accessible learning resources for youth, we launched a free week-long online training on how to develop professional skills. Seven experts delivered seven lectures to 198 young adults from Central Asia on topics ranging from financial literacy, design thinking, public speaking and project management to SMM promotion, media and informational literacy and personal branding. All lectures are available on UNESCO Facebook page. Further, Central Asian Youth Network (CAYNET) was established as an online platform where young adults from Central Asia between the ages of 14-29 can access professional courses, learn languages, develop projects, exchange ideas, and provide support to each other.
Education is a fundamental human right and UNESCO and the other UN agencies active in this field are dedicated to promoting education for all during and after the crisis. We understand that these are extremely difficult times for educators, parents, and students.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we encourage everyone to stay resilient.
The crisis is an opportunity for the world to redefine its perception of “normal,” address inequality, reimagine education so as to make it more resilient, and build a better, more inclusive future. In the words of Abai Qunanbaiuly, Kazakh educator, philosopher, and enlightenment figure, whose 175th anniversary we celebrate this year, “nothing in this world is immutable, and misfortune cannot last forever. Does not the bountiful and blossoming spring follow the harsh winter?” We may be separated, but remain connected nonetheless, and we shall overcome this crisis together.
Let me congratulate all the educators, teachers and learners of all ages on the day of knowledge and the beginning of the new school year. I wish you good health, patience, and strength.
The author is Director of the UNESCO Almaty Office Krista Pikkat.