By Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education and Suzanne Grant Lewis, UNESCO-IIEP Director
From school closures and home confinement to travel bans, countries and municipalities are ramping up efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. For education, the ramifications have resulted in a record number of children, youth and adults not attending schools or universities.
UNESCO estimates that, as of 24 March, 138 countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting over 1.3 billion children and youth. A further 11 countries have implemented localized school closures.
In the ensuing weeks, this will raise major challenges around equity: how will the most vulnerable students fare when schools are closed?
Understanding the risks of school closures for the most vulnerable
School closures in the context of this rapidly-spreading virus have been deemed necessary by health authorities across the globe, to both slow the spread of the disease and to mitigate the effects on health systems that will not be able to cope with potentially massive numbers of critically ill patients. In some contexts, confinement is becoming not only an act of civil solidarity, but an imperative measure for protecting public health.
However, confinement and school closures often have longer-term consequences, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized, magnifying already-existing disparities within the education system. In addition to the missed opportunities for learning, many children and youth lose access to healthy meals, and are subjected to economic and social stress.
Planning school closures with attention to equity
It is essential to take into consideration the risks of exacerbating disparities, and there are already lessons from the global COVID-19 crisis:
- Tackle the digital divide
As many school systems are now offering online learning modalities while schools are closed, it is imperative to tackle the digital divide in moving forward. This includes looking at issues related to access, teacher preparedness, and school-family communication. Before and after school closures, public-private partnerships could help ensure that all students have access to information technology, or to radio and television modalities that are also relevant in some contexts and have been used successfully in crisis settings.
Training teachers to use digital learning management systems and online learning pedagogy – before crises – is essential to transitioning to an online learning modality during a time of crisis. However, for teachers who are finding themselves in unchartered territory, a brief livestreamed training session could be organized. Establishing communication lines between teachers and parents before crises and maintaining them as children learn from home is also key to support the most at risk children.
- Ensure healthy meals beyond schools
Solutions to reach students who rely on school meals are also important. Many lessons can be provided from the blog UNESCO wrote yesterday about different countries’ approaches. Strategies can include mobilizing school buses to deliver school meals and establishing partnerships with food delivery services could be another. Working with food and nutrition authorities to provide daily prepared meals that can be distributed via drive-thru or walk-up is another inventive solution used currently in San Diego, United States.
- Plan for inclusive learning solutions
Education authorities must also take special care in planning for the diverse needs of all learners during school closures. This is paramount for students with learning difficulties, who may struggle to work autonomously and at a distance. It may be desirable to maintain minimum opportunities for classroom learning, with small groups of special needs learners. Providing direct individual online learning through daily check-ins with teachers and videoconferencing with other learners may also be necessary, as is the provision of resources to parents and caregivers taking on the role of teacher during school closures.
UNESCO’s support to governments as they implement school closures
UNESCO provides guidance to support education systems during this crisis as they move from traditional learning to digital learning, and provides free digital educational resources and a repository of national learning platforms designed to support the continuity of curriculum-based study. More information on UNESCO’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is available here.
Through its International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), it also provides education authorities with technical cooperation for crisis-sensitive planning. This can help address all of these challenges related to the equitable provision of education during times of crisis. Such planning not only helps save lives; it can reduce recovery costs, as education officials and partners anticipate risks and act in advance.
However, such planning must not get stuck with short-term fixes. It should move towards a systematic practice of prevention and preparedness for crisis. For school systems, this means not only responding to the day’s challenges, but also working to prevent, anticipate, mitigate, and recover from crisis, both in and through education.