As the world continues its struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many organizations providing aid and ensuring that basic human needs are met. However, systemic issues remain in ensuring the rights to health, safety and access to information for these communities. For this reason, it is critical that other organizations in the research, policy and advocacy space are pushing for reform in order to protect and advance human rights.

Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening all over the world. The charity works to protect the most vulnerable by directing its advocacy toward governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to enforce laws and policies – or to change them. Human Rights Watch is on the ground in 100 countries documenting, corroborating data, and gathering witness testimony. By choosing not to receive government funding, Human Rights Watch is able to remain independent, so it can focus efforts on where they are needed most, without hindrance. Its work involves partnering with organizations around the world to help protect the world’s most vulnerable communities, hold abusers accountable and secure justice for victims.

One human right they work to protect affects all of us: education. Individuals, families and communities all benefit from equitable and inclusive education; it plays a critical role in human, social and economic development. Despite its importance in advancing society, access to education remains unequal and many children face discrimination and other barriers that threaten to keep them out of the classroom.

The global community has made great progress in recent years ensuring more children have access to education, but COVID-19 threatens to dismantle this work, as many countries, including the U.S., have closed schools during the outbreak.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch are deeply concerned about how this disruption will affect the short-term wellbeing and long-term learning impacts on children and their families. Human Rights Watch wants to ensure that all students are supported and can continue to learn throughout the pandemic. Human Rights Watch has critical insights and policy solutions that can ensure access to education and the other services that schools provide for students around the world.

Internet access for all
While online learning seems like a great solution, 46% of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. This is despite the fact that governments around the world have committed to provide universal and affordable internet access by 2020, according to Sustainable Development Goal No. 9. Several countries even have frequent government-led internet shutdowns.

You may think this isn’t a problem in the U.S. – but one in five school-aged children in the U.S. does not have access to a computer or high-speed internet at home.

With schools closed and internet access limited, many students don’t have a lot of options for remote learning and risk falling behind in their studies.

That is why Human Rights Watch is calling for dramatic change. It has suggestions for short-term measures that governments can quickly address, such as limiting data caps and eliminating eligibility requirements for low-income targeted plans. However, the charity emphasizes that these strategies should complement longer-term efforts to make internet access available to all.

Human Rights Watch offers us a clear call to action: “In this time of crisis, it is essential to ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service. Governments and companies should take specific measures to mitigate disproportionate hardships that poor and marginalized populations experience.”

School meals
Closed schools can also affect children’s access to safe, nutritious meals. Closures can leave low-income families struggling to make ends meet and provide necessities such as food. Many children rely on school meals for nourishment, and for some, school is the only place they are provided a meal.

Human Rights Watch recommends that governments guarantee continued meal services during school closures for children in low-income families who will miss subsidized meals. New York City, for example, is already doing this – the city offers free meals to any public school student during the COVID-19 closure. Children can stop by certain locations and pick up a prepackaged breakfast and lunch every day during the week.

Students with disabilities
Children with disabilities require services and resources that have been heavily disrupted during the pandemic. Care support and access to therapy is limited, while many schools struggle to provide learning materials and educational support that meet these students’ needs. Access to education is a human right for all, and every child deserves the opportunity to learn.

Human Rights Watch has been collecting responses from parents, teachers and caregivers around the world to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on children’s education. The results clearly show that barriers to education are heightened for students with disabilities. The charity recommends that governments and schools adopt strategies that support all students; in many cases this requires that materials be adapted or altered to be more accessible and engaging for learners with disabilities.

Education at risk
Schools offer much more than just an education. Aside from the support we’ve mentioned above, there are many other developmental factors where schools are vital.

First, schools provide routine and stability. Both are incredibly important elements in childhood development, particularly for those in unstable home situations.

Schools are often where children learn proper handwashing techniques and hygiene practices. Without schools, this responsibility falls on caregivers who may not be versed on the most up-to-date information. This is especially important during the pandemic, where handwashing is the primary way to avoid being infected.

Receiving an education also puts children at less risk of child marriage, reduces child labor and sets children up for a better, more stable future. With so many schools closed because of COVID-19, there’s an added concern that efforts to increase enrollment and retention may be jeopardized, placing children around the world in danger of missing out on their right to an education.

Human Right Watch is recommending that governments monitor enrollment data once schools reopen, especially in areas with high rates of child marriage and labor, and in refugee populations, so they can see the full extent of the damage and work to get all children back in school.

As a general recommendation, Human Rights Watch is urging governments to step in to provide a variety of learning options including online interactive learning as well as low-tech educational tools that do not require a Wi-Fi signal so that they are accessible to all. Also, every attempt should be made to recover missed in-person class time once schools reopen.

Supporting human rights in the face of a pandemic
Human Rights Watch is doing amazing work to help change policies around the world in order to ensure that human rights are respected and upheld for all. Its work to support education is particularly vital as we continue to navigate this pandemic and build a better future.

Here are some ways you can engage in the human rights dimensions of COVID-19 and help develop new guidelines for access to education:

  • Take Human Rights Watch’s survey on education and COVID-19 to inform their future work.
  • Consider making Human Rights Watch part of your workplace giving campaign and give together as a team to make a greater impact.
  • Explore other ways your company can support and invest in education around the world. Global Impact can strengthen your company’s CSR response and address the human rights needs you care most about. Contact us to learn more.

Education is a human right. Children must be given access to the tools they need to learn even if they can’t attend school in person. Human Rights Watch is doing everything it can to ensure access for all during this pandemic. If we are to emerge from this pandemic stronger, education has to be foundational to our COVID-19 assistance efforts.