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  • Aga Khan Schools like this one in Murtazabad, Pakistan focus on engaging students in quality education (photo taken prior to COVID-19).
    AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer
  • Students enjoy a moment of outdoor recreation at the Aga Khan School, Murtazabad, Pakistan (photo taken prior to COVID-19).
    AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer
Building partnerships through a pandemic

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is a shared global experience. For students, the pandemic continues to disrupt their educational environment, with some schools moving to virtual classrooms and others closing entirely.

Nimet Rener, Director of the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES), spoke to the Aga Khan Foundation during its digital event, “Mind the Gap”, about the impact on the AKES school system that spans over 12 countries in Africa and Asia. She shared how AKES has responded to the pandemic, and the importance of well-being for students, teachers and parents.

For students and teachers, school closures have resulted in the disruption of their relationships and routines of learning, teaching and engagement. As the pandemic unfolded, the main goal of AKES was to ensure that learning would continue no matter what. From very remote areas without connectivity or access to students, to urban settings, staff moved quickly into emergency remote learning.

 “We’re at the sort of early stages of amazing innovation coming through in very difficult context,” said Nimet. “Our AKES staff on the ground has been quite phenomenal and inspiring.”

In areas with little or no connectivity, innovations have been significant. In northern Pakistan, for example, AKES partnered with local TV stations to run school courses on cable. In Afghanistan, teachers and families were given SIM cards so they could communicate with one another regularly. There were also education packs made for families without any connectivity, which staff volunteered to deliver to families by traveling miles on foot. This also meant that staff were able to communicate health messages about the pandemic to families.

The pandemic has also illuminated the importance of the social and emotional importance of education. In particular, the well-being and resilience of adults have become a new focus, as the roles of both parents and teachers have fundamentally changed. For example, as the pandemic unfolded with new health and economic pressures on families, teachers were simultaneously reaching out to their students’ families as educators, and addressing the same pressures and supporting their own families as parents.

“Our priority as a system,” Nimet said, “was first and foremost about the well-being of the adults in the system.” The impacts of the pandemic are disproportionately shouldered by women and girls, who often take a larger share of unpaid caregiving in the home even before COVID-19. Limited mobility due to various measures necessary for slowing the spread of disease has also accelerated a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.

Stress from adults often unintentionally and unwittingly gets passed down onto children, and soft skills like emotional intelligence, teamwork and adaptiveness are important for younger students to learn – online solutions and distanced learning are often unconducive in learning these skills.

“I worry about the impact on very young children, if they are in environments of high stress over a sustained period of time and they’re not having role models of different ways to deal with situations,” said Nimet. “We’re going to have some work to do, moving forward, addressing the issue of resilience, but also embedding very deeply, the kinds of... skills required around managing relationships and managing stress.”

Building a relationship between teachers and families has been key in understanding, enabling and supporting children’s education and development. But this bridging has gone beyond using tools for online and distanced learning.

“It’s more profound than that,” said Nimet. “Placing this engagement as people, and caring, and empathy, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, showing up with resilience, has been where we’re going with this. And it’s not over. I think our human engagements will always contain a need for that.”

Watch the full interview with Nimet Rener 

This article was adapted from a blog published on the Aga Khan Foundation Canada website.