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Getting students back in schools is only the first step by Stefania Giannini

This NORRAG Highlights is contributed by Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and former Minister of Education, Universities and Research of the Italian Republic. The author discusses that while many school systems are planning on how to return to in-person instruction, just getting back to the classroom is not enough. Three further critical priorities include reenrolling every child, catching up lost learning, and building resilience for an uncertain future.  

At its peak coronavirus forced 1.6 billion students out of school, the largest education disruption since World War II. Country-wide and localized closures of schools still prevail in over 100 countries, making the future more uncertain than ever for one billion children and youth. While some systems are reopening, others across low, middle and high incomes countries could remain remote into 2021. We are seeing that the health pandemic and economic recession is now joined by a third tragedy: lost learning that comes at high personal and societal cost. The World Bank estimates the cost of learning loss at $16,000 over the course of a student’s lifetime.

Tackling this challenge will take more than business as usual. The UN Secretary General’s policy brief on Education and COVID-19, released earlier this month, warned of a ‘generational catastrophe’ without bold measures to place education at the forefront of recovery agendas. At UNESCO we recognized from the onset of the crisis the need to bring in new partners to support school systems at this unprecedented time, and founded the Global Education Coalition. As we have worked alongside some 140 public, private and nonprofit coalition partners to support ministries of education around the world, we have found that most systems are understandably focused on the overwhelming logistics of what health safeguards to adopt and how many students can fit into a socially distant classroom. These are essential for keeping students and staff safe when schools reopen. But getting students back into the classroom is only the first step to ensuring quality equitable education. Just as important are three further critical priorities: reenrolling every child, catching up lost learning, and building resilience for an uncertain future.

Reenrolling every child: Previous sanitary crisis and natural disasters have resulted in significant drop-outs. After Hurricane Katrina, 12% to 20% of students either disenrolled from school altogether or were partially attending.  In Sierra Leone, where poverty, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy increased during the Ebola crisis, reenrollment efforts involved coordination with parents and communities, awareness building via television, radio, and print media, and financial support to students and families. Drop-outs from COVID-19 are likely to dwarf these numbers.  UNESCO models suggest an additional 10.9 million children and youth are at risk of dropping out of primary or secondary school due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Add in the impact of student disengagement due to patchy remote learning globally and we could be set back years in our commitment to full enrollment and completion, the core ambition of Sustainable Development Goal 4. As the COVID crisis evolves, systems must maintain student engagement whether in remote or hybrid models, ensure effective communication with parents and families to reassure them that returning to school is safe, and work with communities to reenroll students lost to the workforce. Strong relationships between students and teachers will be foundational across all three steps.

Catching up lost learning: Systems cannot leave remediation to chance.  Learning losses compound over time. A study of the impact of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan found that while children missed just three months of school, four years after the earthquake, they were the learning equivalent of one and a half years behind peers in neighboring regions. Systems need to have a thorough plan to assess learning progression, and help students recover academically and emotionally. This may involve more time, for example through extending the school calendar, more focus through one-on-one tutoring programs, compressed content, or a combination of the three. And all must be built on a strong foundation that ensures the prerequisites of success: physical elements like food security and safety, but also emotional elements of relationship and trust – for if those are not in place first then students will not be in a good place to learn.

Building resilient remote and hybrid learning systems: Every system is going to have to improve their remote learning offering. In response to surging virus counts, many school districts in the United States are looking to start the fall virtual.  Kenya and Philippines similarly have announced a virtual fall.  Even for countries that are planning a return to in-person instruction, this is often in a hybrid model, combining remote and in-person instruction. Though this looks quite different in low-tech environments, the principles are the same: ensuring access to learning solutions – be this radio or devices and high-speed internet – creating a plan to deliver quality instruction, practice, and formative assessment remotely, training teachers and families, and engaging students not only on academics but also their broader social and emotional needs.

To help systems integrate these three dimensions, we have worked with McKinsey and Company and countries around the world to create a series of toolkits. Our new toolkits can help systems take the next step to ensure quality equitable instruction for all students. With inputs from different countries and case studies, they chart out practical steps to reenroll students, address learning losses and improve remote and hybrid learning systems. Across each priority, resources must be focused on the most vulnerable learners.

While many school systems are planning how to return to in-person instruction, just getting back to the classroom is not enough.  For school systems, the recovery is just beginning. Building resilience to ensure that education systems are fit for the future and fulfill every child’s right to quality education is the urgency before every government and the global community today.

About the Author: Stefania Giannini is the Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and former Minister of Education, Universities and Research of the Italian Republic (2014-2016).

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Disclaimer: NORRAG’s blog offers a space for dialogue about issues, research and opinion on education and development. The views and factual claims made in NORRAG posts are the responsibility of their authors and are not necessarily representative of NORRAG’s opinion, policy or activities

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1 Response

  1. Sheldon Shaeffer

    The problem with this blog is the absolute reference to any thing related to early childhood development and pre-primary education — where the pandemic is perhaps hitting hardest to the most fragile part of the education system. It’s just not comprehensible how the focus of blogs such as this can be only on primary and secondary education and ignore the thousands of :ECD programmes which have been closed and will not open and the millions of children in these programmes who will never return to them.

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