Addressing equity and inclusion during COVID-19

GPE / Kelley Lynch

Widespread crises tend to exacerbate inequalities of all kinds, and COVID-19 has been no exception. The most vulnerable have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic, including children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, girls, children with disabilities, refugees, internally displaced children, and indigenous and minority children. In times of crisis, these groups often find themselves doubly disadvantaged. Refugees, for example, who have fled their home countries, are particularly vulnerable to this health crisis due to poor, overcrowded living conditions, and children with disabilities who were already marginalized before the outbreak have not always been included in strategies of distance learning. Unless special measures are taken to identify and support the most marginalized learners, they will be left even further behind in the wake of the crisis.

Participants in a recent IIEP-UNESCO online discussion forum identified the most at-risk learners across 41 countries.

Poll participants identified rural children, orphans, children affected by conflict, victims of domestic violence, children speaking a minority language, street children, very young children, incarcerated children, and adult learners as being at heightened risk due to COVID-19.



Across countries, participants expressed concern that learners from low-socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds would fall further behind wealthier peers. In many countries, there is not only a digital divide, but also a divide when it comes to electricity, television, and radio access, particularly in rural and remote areas. Further, the level of education and economic situation of poorer parents affect their ability to supervise children’s learning and to provide for their families’ basic needs.

Learners with disabilities were identified as a second vulnerable group; even before the pandemic, enrolment rates were low for this group. Participants noted that the often-generic approaches to education continuity taken by governments during the crisis marginalize these learners further, as they often require additional support, materials, and equipment that are unavailable in their homes. 

Like many students, refugee learners often depend on the school for basic services outside education. A participant from the Sahel region, for example, reported that due to school closures, refugee students have lost access not only to protective learning environments but also to WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities and school feeding. 

As is often the case during crises, the situation of girls and young women is particularly precarious. In the words of one participant:

The current pandemic has far-reaching consequences in terms of creating new vulnerabilities and exacerbating existing disparities in education. Participants shared several strategies to mitigate these disparities, as follows.

1. Provide disaggregated, up-to-date data on the most marginalized for inclusive and equitable planning

Disaggregated data on vulnerable learners are often fragmented or unavailable, making crisis response for these groups more difficult. Some participants highlighted that, in spite of the diverse needs and challenges faced by learners with disabilities, they tend to be treated as a homogeneous group for planning purposes, with no available data disaggregated by disability type.

2. Take specific measures to support education continuity for the most vulnerable

Radio- and TV-based learning are popular approaches across countries, particularly in contexts where internet connectivity and computer/smartphone access is limited. Where radio- and TV-access is also limited, countries rely on distribution of print materials to reach remote learners. Some countries are trying to bridge the digital divide by providing electronic materials and internet access. Participants described some encouraging initiatives to adapt educational materials for learners with disabilities, though progress has been slow.

3. Ensure coordination and cross-sectoral planning to enhance equity, inclusion, and gender equality

Participants highlighted the importance of a clearly articulated role for ministries of education in the ongoing crisis response. Many countries have mobilized existing crisis-response bodies, set up task teams, and/or collaborated with the country’s Education Cluster and other international and national partners to coordinate the COVID-19 response. Cross-sectoral initiatives have also proven useful in addressing the needs of vulnerable learners, for example through cash transfers and food programmes. 


To date, the complex COVID-19 emergency has presented significant challenges for education systems around the world, particularly when it comes to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. In order to ‘build back’ more resilient education systems that facilitate quality education for all, education actors will need to lay a strong foundation of inclusion, equity, and gender equality, by enshrining these principles in all planning, policy-making, and programming efforts.