UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Outcomes of webinar on 23 April


Chefchaouen, Morocco © CC BY NC 2.0, Flickr, Robert Brands
12 May 2020

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on francophone learning cities’ responses to COVID-19 on 23 April 2020 as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) and interested non-members. A global overview of priority areas was provided by UIL Director David Atchoarena; this was followed by presentations on initiatives by representatives of the cities of Évry-Courcouronnes (France), Chefchaouen (Morocco), and Mayo-Baléo (Cameroon), and by the Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF), a network for mayors of French-speaking cities whose aim is to encourage exchange and cooperation. More than 70 UNESCO GNLC members, city representatives and education stakeholders from around the world participated.

In his welcoming address, Mr Atchoarena reiterated the purpose of the webinar, which was to showcase the ways in which cities, which have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis, have mobilized their local social services to assist those in need and sought out ways to ensure educational continuity, including for vulnerable groups. He explained that the series of webinars has been developed in part to provide a platform for exchange and discussions in order to better understand local realities and actions undertaken, as well as to collect examples of best practice that could be shared across the network. Hosting a webinar in French was the network’s way of breaking linguistic borders and promote cooperation and solidarity among the francophone community.

Finally, the UIL Director called on learning cities to continue to play their part in promoting lifelong learning for all in order to build resilience and contribute to sustainable development. Participation, citizenship and democracy can thrive at the local level, and learning cities should work to find lasting solutions together and promote them on an international scale through networks such as the UNESCO GNLC and AIMF.

UNESCO learning city of Évry-Courcouronnes, France

Ms Danielle Valéro, First Deputy Mayor of Évry, discussed the strategies her city has developed to ensure continuity of learning during the pandemic, which includes free childcare for nursing staff, monitoring the most vulnerable families in collaboration with schools and municipal staff, and ensuring agents in charge of the educational and social policies of the city are able to continue to work from home.

Specific measures and strategies were implemented for populations without access to computers or internet, including the loaning of devices to nearly 60 families; in addition, school supplies and printed class assignments were distributed free of charge to families in need. Ms Valéro noted that municipal staff remain in close contact with school administrators to facilitate communication with certain families, and implement home visits if necessary.

As a way to motivate learners over a long period of distance learning, the city and schools communicate regularly with students and their families. Furthermore, a digital platform has been developed which users can access free of charge. Cultural city partners have also made their catalogues and online resources freely available.

For at-home students whose parents may have had limited or low levels of schooling themselves, Évry-Courcouronnes has put in place a number of social care-based initiatives. These include a roster of social workers and humanitarian organizations on hand to address social issues, the opening of a food bank, delivering meals and medication to vulnerable groups, and the accelerated processing of requests for social housing.

In her concluding remarks, Ms Valéro noted that the key to responding to this crisis is solidarity. Évry-Courcouronnes has found the exchanges with other cities facing the same challenges to be enriching and sources of inspiration. The ‘learning city’ paradigm, she said, lives up to its full potential in a time of crisis, through the recognition of individual competencies and skills put to the use of the greater good.

UNESCO GNLC prospective city of Chefchaouen, Morocco

Mr Mohamed Sefiani, President of Chefchaouen, talked about the measures being implemented at national level in response to COVID-19, all of which, he said, are being applied at local level. These include, among others, the creation of a state-run special fund for COVID-19-related issues; suspension of international air and sea links; the closures of schools, colleges and universities; mandatory use of protective masks; and the mobilization of military doctors jointly with their civilian colleagues.

To guarantee the continuation of learning for vulnerable groups without access to the internet or to digital devices, the country has opted to broadcast educational shows on television, and school exams have been cancelled until schools reopen. Civil society and local actors are working to identify vulnerable groups of people and those in need in order to ensure they have access to food and other basic needs, including education.

UNESCO learning city of Mayo-Baléo, Cameroon

Mr Emmanual Fecwa, Learning City Coordinator for Mayo-Baléo, explained that the situation in his city is complicated due to lack of access to internet and phone. Mayo-Baléo has therefore organized information campaigns which consists of city representatives travelling from village to village to explain the current situation and recommend health measures. Most of the volunteers conducting this work are local youth. In the context of education, schools have suspended all activities until 1 June. Teaching is being conducted through radio shows, for both primary and secondary students. All of the measures Mayo-Baléo is taking is preventative, as there have not been any coronavirus cases reported in the city to date.

Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF)

Mr Pierre Baillet, Permanent Secretary of the AIMF, explained the aim of the network, which is presided over by the Mayor of Paris, and whose objective is to promote good governance among French-speaking cities. As part of its COVID-19 strategy, the AIMF has developed a weekly bulletin in which key information, methods for fighting the spread of the virus, and ways to help communities are posted.

More generally, the AIMF is producing reports on good governance and management for the municipalities in its network; other topics include how to create ‘smart cities’ and urban development.

Two main topics that have informed the recent work of the AIMF are resilience (i.e. how a city can be resilient) and digitalization (i.e. the digitalization of governance). These two themes are closely linked to AIMF’s approach to foster dialogue and create strong bonds between francophone cities in times of crises, such as this, and more generally.


Moderator Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) opened up the debate by asking participants a question from the audience about the availability of protective masks in the various cities.

Ms Valéro explained that Évry has ordered masks for health workers and has partnered up with civil society and citizens to produce handmade masks. Priority will be given to vulnerable groups, namely older people and persons with disabilities. The city is awaiting guidance from national authorities to see if children will also be expected to wear masks. Furthermore, she noted, local parents have said they are wary of sending their children back to school, which poses an issue for the city in terms of large groups of children, especially during the summer months when schools are closed, having nowhere to go, or not returning when classes recommence.

Mr Sefiani of Chefchaouen said that Morocco is producing a large number of masks at a very low price for its population, and will be looking to export masks abroad. In Mayo-Baléo, artisanal masks are being produced.

Mr David Atchoarena closed the webinar by reminding cities of their primary obligations during the current the crisis; namely, to foster collaboration between civil society and local governments to curb the spread of the virus; to ensure equal access to learning opportunities for all; and, finally, to protect vulnerable groups through community activities, preventing violence, and providing food to those in need. COVID-19 has created a climate of uncertainty; building resilience and fostering solidarity will help cities to prepare for the next steps.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) and beyond to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the seven previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees during COVID-19. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw