COVID-19 is an opportunity to reset education. Here are 4 ways how

A schoolgirl wears a face mask as she reads a book inside a classroom at the Olympic Primary School during the partial reopening of schools, after the government scrapped plans to cancel the academic year due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya October 12, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - RC2WGJ9PLMPT

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a billion students have been affected by school closures Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary
CEO and Founder, Insights for Education
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  • Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a billion students have been affected by school closures and 272 billion days of learning have been lost or disrupted;
  • Existing educational inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic –radical inclusion should be the new normal;
  • The systematic collection and analysis of data relating to education during the pandemic is a model for the future that can ensure evidence-based decision and policy-making in education is free from political agendas.

We can learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that could make education policies more evidence-based, inclusive, responsive and transparent. A greater focus on anticipating responses, solidarity within and across countries, agility in managing responses and renewed efforts for collaborative actions will make a better normal for the future.

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Here are four lessons we can already learn:

1.The pandemic put a spotlight on the critical nature of schools and education and on the necessity to safeguard education systems for the future.

Before the pandemic hit, the world was not on track to meet SDG 4. According to UNESCO, more than 260 million children at this time were out of school; of those in school, six out of 10 were not expected to achieve a minimum level of education by the time they finish primary school. Our existing education systems were failing millions of children every year with no palpable sign of a prompt recovery.

Mongolia was the first country to issue national school closure orders on 16 February. By 31 March, 20 days after the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, 96% of the 191 countries for which data was available had closed their school systems either fully or partially.

At the time of writing, 125 countries have now reopened their school systems, at least partially. Within six months, more than a billion students have been affected by school closures; 272 billion days of learning have been lost or disrupted, and Insights for Education projects that this number will amount to 300 billion by the end of the year based on reopening announcements.

School closures in the early stages of the pandemic
School closures in the early stages of the pandemic Image: Statista

Despite efforts to replace schools with remote learning, these billions of days of learning lost could lead to desperation but they should also ensure we find ways to get as many children back to school as possible. This crisis has fostered an intangible goodwill which could materialize in significant education reforms provided we seize every opportunity to learn lessons from the pandemic.

Keeping schools safely open is now a priority even in countries that are experiencing second waves of COVID-19 infection, many of them at infection levels higher than that of their first wave. Overwhelmingly, countries that have fully opened schools are much more likely to stay open, as recent analysis from our foundation shows.

Countries have learned how to live alongside COVID-19 in the classroom, but this determination to keep schools open reveals the growing awareness around education as a critical enabler of human development and empowerment, and demands the need to safeguard our education systems.

2. The pandemic revealed how essential it is to examine and question the evidence to make decisions free from biases, false assumptions and political agendas.

Countries face starkly different realities when it comes to COVID-19 cases and are confronted with varying levels of feasibility for reopening schools safely. Insights for Education has developed a Back to School Tracker to support leaders across governments and society in reopening or closure decisions. This systematic and comprehensive tracking of data collected across 191 countries over a six-month period has helped to identify good practices across school reopening policies and break false assumptions in a much-politicized debate.

Contrary to what has often been assumed, our analysis suggests there is no consistent pattern between the status of schools and infection levels. Learning from countries that are reopening effectively against a backdrop of rising infections is essential. Relentless tracking and sharing of these observations could offer decision-makers insight and confidence to help get the most marginalized students back to schools as soon as possible.

Insights for Education's Back-to-School Tracker
Insights for Education's Back-to-School Tracker Image: Insights for Education

This systematic collection and synthesis of evidence and its translation into policy and practice is carried out regularly in the health sector with great success but is often neglected in education. A critical lesson from the health sector is that evidence can transform lives and achieve progress when policy-maker decisions are guided by routinely synthesized evidence and then translated into practice. Medical professionals don’t need to read countless individual studies and reports, but rather refer to authoritative synthesis of multiple studies which give ever clearer advice on what works and for whom. The result is that the prescription of drugs is not a lottery dependent on the personal experience of an individual doctor. Healthcare’s long history of applying systematic approaches to validate and scale new approaches has anchored testing, vaccine, and treatment development.

In education, the gap between what we know and what we do lies at the heart of the global learning crisis. Without the means to systematically, comprehensively and routinely synthesize evidence in a form that can be used by policy-makers and practitioners, we will be left to “try and guess what the evidence says”, as was the case for health professionals until the 1990s. If we are to get back on track with SDG 4, then the time has come for the education sector to create the knowing-doing infrastructure that has transformed the health sector.


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3. The pandemic has widened inequities and heightened the urgency of bridging gaps for the world’s most marginalized learners. Radical inclusion should be the next normal.

Nearly half the world’s 1.6 billion primary and secondary students will not return to school in 2020. The vast majority (84%) come from lower-middle and low-income countries, where distance-learning technologies are not reaching all children and sharply reinforcing and expediting inequity, especially for girls, pre-primary children and learners with special needs.

Policies for radical inclusion for both remote and in-person learning must emerge. Despite many countries not yet having reopened schools, policies and procedures are being actively crafted to stem the loss of learning from the impact of COVID-19. Implementing academic support programmes, such as catch-up classes and tutoring, and providing additional resources as remedies to learning lost during school closures are the most highly prioritized measures by countries in advance of reopening. These are closely followed by policies to support the physical, social, emotional and mental health of students as well as teacher professional development, which is closely connected with distance learning support. This will be an important consideration for countries who choose to remain closed in advance of a full reopening.

Students not returning to school in 2020 are predominantly from lower-income countries
Students not returning to school in 2020 are predominantly from lower-income countries Image: Insights for Education

4. Collective engagement and mutual accountability are critical cornerstones of sustained success for keeping schools safely open and resilient to future challenges.

Governments and communities have invented more responsive and participatory ways of making decisions in times of crisis. Establishing trust and transparency with parents and teachers, for example by co-developing guidelines in countries like Japan and Denmark, has proven fundamental to the successful reopening of schools. Governments and societies will have to continue investing in learning how to continue education alongside COVID-19. This means revisiting response plans, shifting from emergency measures to chronic vigilance, adapting flexibility for hybrid learning – especially in the poorest of communities – and continually upgrading our collective knowledge based on global experiences.

We must preserve the new habits that we have managed to acquire over such a short timeframe to combat the adverse effects of the pandemic on our education systems and make them sacred in established routines and processes as building blocks of countries’ national education plans.

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