As part of measures to protect children from COVID-19 and prevent its spread, schools in Timor-Leste closed on 23 March 2020. Close to 400,000 children registered in schools have been affected by the closures.
In response, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) quickly put together a plan to ensure children’s continued learning. This included a strategy to use multiple communication channels so that as many children as possible could be reached.
The resulting ‘Eskola Ba Uma’ or ‘School Goes Home’ initiative encompasses television programmes, radio programmes, electronic books, an online Learning Passport platform, and printed books for children who are not digitally connected. Together, the initiative is targeted to reach 350,000 children across the country. In Timor-Leste, various factors have contributed to low levels of quality education in the country. Only about one child out of five has access to formal early education, which leads to struggles when children enter primary school, seeing many have to repeat grades or drop out altogether. There is also a lack of adequate classrooms, a lack of essential learning materials, and a shortage of qualified teachers. Learning is also challenged by the tendency of some parents to undervalue the importance of education. These factors combined have resulted in an estimated 48,000 children being out of school.
“We are looking at this as a great opportunity to reach children, both those affected by school closures and those who have never been registered in school,” said Dulce De Jesus Soares, Timor-Leste’s Minister of Education, Youth and Sport. “We are using this initiative as a springboard to leapfrog into the future as part
of our plan to improve digital literacy and get children learning no matter where they live.” “These will not just be used as television programmes during this period of COVID, but will also be instrumental as teaching aids, especially for our most vulnerable students”. One week after schools closed across Timor-Leste, the first television programmes were being aired by the national television broadcaster RTTL. By week two, the first of two radio programmes also went to air and the online Learning Passport platform, initially developed by Microsoft and UNICEF HQ for refugee children, was launched with the new Eskola Ba Uma material and the entire curriculum online. All of these resources are now online and are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. A major telecommunications company has also hosted material on its platform, offering PDF versions of resources to its 600,000 subscribers, even without the need for an internet package.
Another element of UNICEF’s partnership with Microsoft saw the development and launch of a mobile phone application that mirrors the content of the Learning Passport. This - allows students to download the curriculum materials so they can read and study them offline. To date, 28 television programmes and two radio programmes have been developed, and 30,000 workbooks have been printed for children in remote areas. Thirty new television programmes are also currently being developed.
“The lives of children have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, with school closures and other measures put in place to stop its spread,” said Valérie Taton, UNICEF’s Representative in Timor-Leste. “The Eskola Ba Uma programme has helped to lessen the impact on children by giving them the opportunity to continue learning even during unprecedented times such as these.”