Students in Afghanistan have lacked access to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools have remained closed and the virus has not been controlled.
"The real tragedy is that over 3,000 students in Kabul who come from poor families simply do not have the ability to pursue online education during the pandemic when schools are closed," said Aziz Royesh, a teacher and founder of the Marefat High School in Kabul.
"They don't have the internet or mobiles. And even if they did, Kabul has electricity for only a few hours a day," he explained.
Royesh is one of the top 10 finalists worldwide, of 5,000 nominees, for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize of the Varkey Foundation in London. He was able to attend school until age 10, when he fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Schools in Afghanistan shut down in March 2020, when the COVID-19 virus sparked a pandemic, leaving 10 million students out of school. Of these, 300,000 were public and private university students.
Not all have internet, electricity
Students in big cities such as Kabul and Herat have better security and a few hours of electricity most days, and more privileged students have access to the internet, although it is often weak and unreliable. But in the countryside, students do not have the same security, power is very limited and the internet is almost nonexistent, they report.
According to Save the Children, this is in addition to the 3.7 million who were not in school prior to COVID-19. Across six Afghan provinces, only 28.6% of children can access distance learning programs through TV; 13.8%, through the radio; and 0.2%, through the internet.
Schools reopened in September 2020 and then closed for the winter break in November. They reopened in March 2021, only to be shut down again for two weeks in May 2021 in 16 of 34 provinces, including Kabul, because of further outbreaks.
Students lack access to the internet. The World Bank estimates that only 14% of Afghans use the internet.
Rona Yousufi, a rising Afghan junior at Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, said when the pandemic started, students were forced to leave campus immediately. She moved back to Kabul to continue her education online.
"I missed the first week of classes until I got Wi-Fi in my home, but the connection was really poor with consistent power outages. I missed most of my classes, and one hour of homework took me up to two to three hours to do because of the poor connection," Yousufi said.
But she said she is one of the luckier ones. She could continue her education online, while many students who attend her university could not because they come from poor families and cannot afford Wi-Fi.
"There are around 150 Afghan students who go to this university, and 60 to 70 of these were able to access Wi-Fi. The rest had to halt their education until they returned to the university," Yousufi said.
"I have a big family. My parents, five sisters and a brother and I live in a small two-bedroom house. I share a room with my six siblings, and I don't have any place to study and take my classes. I get disrupted during my classes by my younger brother and sisters. The lack of electricity is another challenge. I stay up all night waiting for electricity to come back so I can get some work done."
'I will be a year behind'
Mohammad Reza Nazari, a recent high school graduate in Kabul, is struggling to get an education during COVID-19. He was taking English classes at Star Educational Society when the center shut down, putting a stop to his education.
"I was taking a TOFEL class to pass the exam and apply for schools abroad, but unfortunately the limited electricity and poor Wi-Fi connection prevented me from doing online study," he said, referring to the Test for English as a Foreign Language that many U.S. colleges and universities require for acceptance.
"I get really sad and depressed when I remember that I will be a year behind other students my age," he said.
Khodadad Jafari from Daikundi, Afghanistan, is a student at Star Educational Society. He moved to Kabul three years ago to learn English so he could study abroad and find a part-time job to support himself and his family back in his village.
"I came to Kabul with a lot of hope, but I had to return to the village with all my wishes destroyed," Jafari said.
He tried to stay in his village, but his drive to get an education led him back to Kabul.
"I have access with my mobile to some phone data in Kabul that I did not have at home. I learn English by watching YouTube videos and from websites, but I have limited data and resources," Jafari said.
Maryam Darwish is a high school senior in Kabul. Since her school shut down, she has found it hard to study by herself.
"I can study social studies, but I need someone to help me with science and math. I try to spend my day drawing, reading fiction and going over my social studies books," Darwish said. "I want to continue my education online, but I am always worried and sleepless."
"It's hard to overstate the impact that COVID has had on the continuity of education in Afghanistan. So many students lost nearly all of 2020 to school closures, and now schools are closed again for the foreseeable future," said Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, in Kabul.
"SOLA, as a boarding school, is fortunate in that we've been able to institute health and safety procedures that have allowed us to operate throughout this year without any outbreaks on our campus, but our model is unique in Afghanistan," she said. "COVID is the great thief that has robbed millions, literally millions, of Afghan girls and boys of their education."