Saudi minister highlights ‘huge’ strains on global education as G-20 tackles pandemic

ISTANBUL —International efforts were needed to meet the “huge challenges” facing global educational systems as they strained to adapt to distanced learning while accommodating children with special needs, Saudi Arabia’s education minister said at the Group of 20 Summit meeting in Riyadh Sunday.

a man standing in front of a television: Saudi Arabia's Minister of Education Hamad Mohammed al-Sheikh speaks during a media briefing at the media centre during the 15th annual G-20 Leaders' Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 2020.

© Nael Shyoukhi/Reuters
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Education Hamad Mohammed al-Sheikh speaks during a media briefing at the media centre during the 15th annual G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 2020.

His comments kicked off the second day of a summit that is being held virtually and has been dominated by discussions about the pandemic and its disastrous fallout.


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“No one expected that 1.6 billion students will be outside of schools,” said Hamed el-Sheikh. “No education system in the world had expected that they will face a prolonged time where students are staying at home in lockdowns.”

Leaders attending the summit represent nations that top the world in the rate of infections, including the United States, India, Brazil and France.

[Group of 20 leaders call for global coronavirus vaccine access as U.S. labs near approval]

On Saturday, the summit’s first day, most world leaders stressed the need for greater global cooperation to ensure that vaccines against the virus are affordable and widely distributed, including in developing nations.

A notable exception was President Trump, whose disdain for multilateralism has been a hallmark of his tenure. During perfunctory remarks to the group that he followed with a round of golf, Trump made no promise to expand the availability of U.S. vaccines and touted his administration’s own record in combating the virus, saying it had “marshaled every resource.”

Even before his comments, expectations were low for the summit, an annual gathering of the world’s largest economies. The meeting was expected to finalize a framework for granting poor nations debt relief and promoting international vaccine collaborations such as Covax, a World Health Organization-linked effort to expand vaccine distribution to the developing world.

The gathering also provoked protests from Saudi and international human rights groups — as well as some U.S. and European lawmakers — that called on world leaders to boycott or downgrade their representation over the kingdom’s abuses, including jailings of female activists and the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

No world leaders boycotted, but neither did the remote gathering provide Saudi Arabia with the kind of platform it had sought to showcase its accomplishments. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler who has become a lightning rod for criticism over human rights, was expected to address the gathering later on Sunday.

The World Bank has said the pandemic could drive as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty, reversing two decades of steady progress in alleviating the suffering of the world’s poorest people. UNICEF has also warned that unequal access to technology among students in poorer countries threatens to “deepen the global learning crisis.”

Saudi Arabia, with virtually unmatched financial resources, has been able to dedicate satellite channels to distance learning and partnered with Microsoft to boost server space for online instruction, said Sheikh, the education minister. Education that “blended” in-person and distance learning would become the norm, even after the worst ravages of the pandemic had passed.

But “some countries don’t have the capability to launch satellite stations,” he noted.

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