At the end of February as alarm bells began to sound on the growing spread of the COVID-19 virus, the World Bank established a multi-sectoral global task force to support country response and coping measures. At the time, only China and a handful of schools in other affected countries were enforcing social distancing through school closures. A little over two weeks later, 120 countries have closed schools impacting almost a billion students across the globe that have seen their schools close for varied lengths of time.
While school closures seem to present a logical solution to enforcing social distancing within communities, prolonged closures tend to have a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable students.They have fewer opportunities for learning at home, and their time out of school may present economic burdens for parents who may face challenges finding prolonged childcare, or even adequate food in the absence of school meals.
Hard-won gains in expanded access to education could stagnate or reverse as school closures are extended and accessibility to alternative options like distance learning remain out of reach for those without means to connect. This may cause further loss in human capital and diminished economic opportunities.
The most worrying issue is that the majority of low-income countries (for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa) are nor reporting many (or even any) cases yet. This creates uncertainties for both service delivery and for preparedness. It is not clear what should guide the decision-making process for these countries: should they move preemptively in spite of potential economic fallout, or wait to see and risk widespread disease? Operating in the unknown creates substantial risks to all sectors, including education.
China is one country where education continued regardless of school closures, taking place through internet and distance learning. Other countries or school systems are less prepared. Access to technology in most households may vary, and access to high bandwidth internet, or to smartphones is related to income even in middle income countries. Therefore, programs that can quickly target those in most need are crucial.
Education interventions during a crisis can support prevention and recovery of public health while mitigating the impact on students and learning. Where health facilities may be scarce, schools can be turned into makeshift holding centers during a crisis. This all needs to be factored into planning, particularly during the coping and recovery phases. It’s also worth noting that education has the potential to contribute to the protection of children and youth; it helps them cope or maintain some normalcy during a crisis, and recover more quickly, hopefully with some useful new skills (i.e. acquiring distance learning skills and deeper digital mastery where applicable). Furthermore, in some low-capacity environments, notably across swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa, schools are often the only permanent government structure in rural villages and can serve as makeshift crisis response centers. Teachers, often among the most educated in these hard-to-reach areas, can be trained to serve as contact tracers and communication campaign advocates.
How countries are managing?
Many client countries are implementing various forms of these strategies, including:
Enhancing preparedness while keeping schools open: This involves enforcing and supporting preventive actions in schools (Afghanistan); establishing protocols for schools’ handling of illnesses and potential cases (Egypt, Russia, Belarus); using the education system’s infrastructure and human resources to address the spread of infections in communities (Liberia and Sierra Leone); and limiting physical contact by reducing social and extra-curricular activities (Singapore, Russia)
Selective closing of schools: Choosing to isolate treatment areas, some governments have opted for localized school closures as an interim measure (for example India). In half the cases thus far, we have seen these localized approaches subsequently expand geographically (Brazil, India, Canada, Australia).
- National closing of schools (the most used option globally): As the virus has spread, many countries are announcing national school closures. Many are concerned that children and youth, while seemingly less susceptible to the virus and have a much lower case-fatality ratio, may serve as carriers for the disease, putting at risk older family members in communities across the globe where multi-generational households are the norm.
- Using remote learning and education resources to mitigate loss of learning: Many countries have turned to distance learning as a means of mitigating for lost time in school (fully online in China, Italy, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia; mobile phones or television in Vietnam, Mongolia). In addition to infrastructure and connectivity, teachers’ and administrators’ familiarity with the tools and processes are also key factors in providing distance learning (Singapore). Other countries send kids home with lessons as homework (Lebanon). In Bulgaria, more than 800,000 accounts have been created for all teachers and parents, publishers have been mobilized to open the digital textbooks and learning materials for grades 1 to 10, and two national TV channels will broadcast educational tv. As more countries close schools, more creativity will be needed. For instance, adapting existing platforms for use in smartphones, and/or agreeing with telecom companies to eliminate the cost of accessing material from a Ministry of education site could be part of the mitigation efforts.
What we are learning from COVID-19, similar to what we have seen in previous pandemics, is that preparedness is crucial. While different scenarios exist, several of them assume that the COVID-19 spread will happen in waves, which means the process of addressing it should be cyclical. Countries not yet impacted should begin “preparing,” starting with a response plan. This would facilitate “coping” once the crisis hits and minimizing the negative impacts. The plan can include introducing protocols for screenings in schools, rolling out hygiene practice campaigns, imposing school closures, offering distance learning, using closed schools for emergency purposes, etc.
As the emergency phase dissipates, communities could move into a “recovery” mode, with governments implementing policies and measures to regain lost time. The approaches may include adjustments to the academic calendar, prioritizing students in grades preparing for high-stakes examinations, and continuing with distance learning in parallel to schools. Countries that have shown greater resilience in repeated crises, such as those in East Asia, are the ones that were able to benefit from lessons learned and to respond quickly to new crises, such as this one. They have been able to use the momentum to re-prepare, investing and reinforcing systems going forward.
It is critical to jointly work building on the experience of previous outbreaks (SARS, Ebola, etc.) in support to Governments in understanding the options available. The World Bank is working with countries across the globe in each of the three stages of preparing, coping and recovery. Educational administrators and policy makers can use this crisis as an opportunity to introduce new learning modes that can reach everyone, to prepare for emergencies, and to make the system more resilient.