Disclaimer: This statement does not reflect the views of the APA Division 52 Board or the Division members. It reflects the views of the Division 52 Advocacy Committee Co-Chairs.

Deborah A. Stiles and Jessica Walsh
Co-Chairs, Advocacy Committee

In his famous speech, “Lighting your way to a better future”, Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” These words ring true now more than ever. Education and positive change are paramount as we respond to multiple global challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, intergroup conflict, domestic violence, the digital divide, racial injustice, illiteracy, fake news, poverty, and inequality. In 2021, UNESCO, the specialized agency for education in the United Nations, produced a 189 page report titled, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. The report begins,Our world is at a turning point. We already know that knowledge and learning are the basis for renewal and transformation. But global disparities – and a pressing need to reimagine why, how, what, where, and when we learn – mean that education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures” (p. 3). Focused on transforming education in the midst of global challenges, the report includes many ideas that will be of special interest to psychologists.

School closures and inequality

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed educational institutions, negatively impacting 1.6 billion children and young people. Children were sent home and expected to continue their education remotely. These closures disproportionately affected working mothers, many of whom were forced to quit their jobs and take on the responsibilities for supporting remote learning instruction and caring for their children. The UNESCO report noted that in most countries, COVID-19 contributed to gender-based economic inequality; to a much greater extent, more women were affected by employment loss than men.

Moreover, school closures caused a widening in the gaps in educational opportunity between and within nations. Wealthier families, communities, and countries could afford the technology, computers, and broadband internet needed to support remote learning. Those with access to digital technologies and skills were able to continue to learn when schools closed down. However, a “digital divide” was created as those without such access and skills lagged far behind in learning.

UNESCO does report some worldwide educational improvements between 1990 and 2020. In this ten-year period, across all countries, there was an increase in youth and adult literacy rates. Even so, there are still inequalities in literacy rates. One in four youth, and two in five women, in lower income countries, are not literate.

Our brains are changing as reading printed materials is becoming less common as more people engage with digital, screen-based reading. Much of the change to digital reading is positive because it makes information more accessible. “But the risks are many: learning can narrow as well as expand in digital spaces; technology provides new levers of power and control which can repress as well as emancipate” (p. 9). The UNESCO report has a vision for the future in which students acquire multiple literacies, including both print and digital literacies. The report recommends fostering critical thinking about digital technologies and also leveraging them positively. The report urges the consideration of digital literacy as one of the essential literacies of this century.

School closures and children’s mental health and well being

School closures and the sustained lack of in-person education has many negative effects on the health and mental health of children and youth. Some of the pandemic-related stressors for children include the death and illness of family members, parental job stress and job loss, and being required to socially distance from friends, family, teachers, and school-based mental health professionals. Children depend on schools for health and mental health services. Many schools provide nutritious meals, healthcare, and mental health services and when schools closed, the students who depended on these services suffered. According to the UNESCO report, human rights should guide the new social contract for education through promoting students’ sense of identity and supporting their mental health and well-being. Schools should educate the whole person and consider social and emotional learning as well as academic learning. “Pedagogy must foster empathy and compassion and must build the capacities of individuals to work together to transform themselves and the world” (p. 147).

The UNESCO report, which emphasizes wholeness and integrating knowing and feeling in education, acknowledges that during the pandemic, many schools changed their priorities to provide more support for students. [During COVID-19] “many school systems realized that personal needs and social welfare needed to be foremost, tests were postponed, the content-coverage requirements of curricula were suspended, and classroom interactions focused on authentic learning and well-being” (p. 100). In our opinion, the pandemic is not over and the prioritization of social and emotional needs must continue.

School closures and teachers’ mental health and well being

The UNESCO report adequately addresses the mental health and well-being of children during school closures, but not the mental health of their teachers. The UNESCO report states that “teachers experienced stress and burnout as a result of inadequate technological platforms and professional development to support remote learning effectively, and subsequently some abandoned the profession” (p. 86). We disagree. For teachers, the problems were more complex than this and dealing with technological platforms was only one of many pandemic-related stressors. During the pandemic, teachers were “front-line workers” and on many school days, they risked their own and their families’ health and well-being. Medium to high stress-levels were found among teachers in India, China, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Personal relationships are very important for teachers and COVID-19 disrupted connections with students, families, and colleagues. In a study in the United States one teacher wrote, “The most difficult aspect of my job during the pandemic was not being able to see my students. I felt like the distance learning wasn’t reaching across to them the way I normally reach them in the classroom, academically and emotionally” (Baker et al, 2021, p. 13). In a study in the United Kingdom, three teachers compared the COVID lockdown to having a rug pulled out from underneath them. Quotes from a study of women teachers in India are, “Virtual classes do not have student participation” and “Students feel disconnected with the online class” (Dogra & Kaushal, 2021, p. 9).

Psychologists’ call to action

For psychologists who work in schools, COVID-19 and the other current crises have been their “call to action.” Psychologists have the knowledge and skills to deal with multiple global challenges, research problems and solutions, protect human rights and dignity, and meet the social, emotional, and learning needs of school communities. The International School Psychology Association (ISPA) website describes the psychologists who work in schools as “catalysts of change” who recognize that due to COVID-19, there are now greater mental health needs for school communities and increased education needs for students. According to ISPA, “school psychologists advocate for overcoming social inequalities, and for equity and social justice in the educational system and for a balance between mental health, physical health, and academic learning.” It is now the time for us as psychologists to heed Nelson Mandela’s words. In a time that threatens to overwhelm precious resources, we need to remember that one of our most precious resources is education; it can and does have the power to change the world.

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