How do the world’s leading education experts recommend the education sector should respond to Covid-19?

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African school teacher wearing a lab coat, taking temperature on the forehead of a school girl | Shutterstock | I_Am_Zews
African school teacher wearing a lab coat, taking temperature on the forehead of a school girl | Shutterstock | I_Am_Zews

The arrival and scale of the Covid-19 pandemic caught everyone off guard; the pandemic, and its reverberating impacts, are far from over. The pandemic has impacted every area of the lives of every person around the globe, and education has been hit by its worst crisis in a century. In some countries, policy makers have been doing their best to respond to an unprecedented and fast-moving situation; in others, they have yet to grasp the magnitude of this monumental shock. Evidence on the effectiveness and impact of various policy and programmatic responses has been in short supply, in part because few countries were prepared. But recovering learning is now a gigantic task in need of urgent action.

The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), an independent multidisciplinary panel of leading global education experts convened by our organizations, is helping to fill this evidence gap. Their new report, Prioritizing Learning During Covid-19, summarizes the best evidence available, including on what has worked so far during the pandemic, and provides recommendations for how to tackle the global learning crisis in the wake of Covid-19. Here, we discuss our takeaways from the Panel’s main recommendations.

  1. Prioritize keeping schools and preschools fully open

Schools must be reopened and stay open. The large educational, economic, social, and mental health costs of school closures suggest full or partial school closure should be a last resort in governments’ Covid-19 mitigation strategies. These costs fall heavily on the less well-off and girls, including through increased risk of teen pregnancy. The impacts of school closures will last longer than disruptions in many other sectors since losses in human capital reduce income and productivity throughout a child’s life. Schools not only provide spaces for learning, but also deliver a range of critical services for students, including school meals, psychosocial support, and protection. Children need to be supported in their return to school and provided comprehensive supports that not only ensure their learning, but also their wellbeing. The priority should be keeping preschools, primary, and secondary schools fully open over keeping non-education sectors open, where disruptions cause shorter-term losses.

  1. Reduce transmission in schools by prioritizing teachers for the Covid-19 vaccination, providing, and using masks where appropriate, and improving ventilation

The GEEAP cites ventilation and masking as key pandemic mitigation measures and calls for prioritizing teachers for vaccination. In Bangladesh, a randomized evaluation found that even imperfect masking substantially reduced community transmission (a 30-percentage-point increase in mask-wearing reduced transmission by 11% for surgical masks and 5% for the cloth masks often used in schools).

  1. Adjust instruction to reflect the new reality and focus on important foundational skills

As children come back to school, curricula will need to be adjusted and aligned across the system to focus on foundational skills that children have missed. It will be too difficult for teachers to cover all the curricula as if children were just returning from a short break rather than major disruption to their schooling. Catch-up classes will be critical to meet children at their learning level rather than their curriculum grade. A series of randomized evaluations in India show that adjusting instruction to a child’s level can rapidly improve foundational reading and math skills, even for students well behind grade level. When schools closed in Kano, Nigeria, the government leaned on the evidence-based Teaching at the Right Level approach to help pupils, both during and after school closures.

  1. Provide additional instructional support to teachers

Teachers need support to continue improving their teaching skills, for example through structured pedagogy and simple teaching guides, to provide effective learning to their students as they return. They may also need increased human support to accommodate students’ varying learning levels and needs. In South Africa, youth who volunteered as teaching assistants dramatically increased reading and math skills.

  1. Leverage technology that is fit to country context

Remote education was not available to most students in low- and middle-income countries and most remote learning solutions were an inadequate substitute for in-person learning. Low-tech and no-tech solutions have been effective in many areas. But eventually, technology will have the potential to be an effective support in all education systems. In Brazil, text messages sent to students reduced dropout rates by 26% during the pandemic. In Bangladesh, mentoring and home-schooling support provided by tutors through mobile phones had large impacts on learning outcomes.

  1. Foster parental engagement

Studies prior to the pandemic demonstrate how some parental involvement approaches can increase children’s learning at low cost to the parent. These include direct communication from schools to parents, engaging more with young children in educational activities, reading books to a child (where the parent is literate), and sharing simple exercises for the parent to use with their child by text or phone call. Parents and caregivers have been engaged in education in an unprecedented way, and their expanded role should be encouraged as schools reopen.

In Costa Rica, text messages to parents that encouraged them to support their children’s learning at home led to significant cognitive gains during the pandemic. These results reinforce findings from a review in non-Covid-19 settings, which revealed that interventions involving parents via phones, texts and emails have been successful as long as communications are two-way, personalised, and positive.

LOOKING FORWARD

Many countries are already responding to the pandemic in line with the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel’s recommendations. The learning crisis – now on the brink of becoming a catastrophe – is still underestimated in many countries and not sufficiently prioritized despite its potential to become the most serious and long-lasting impact of the pandemic. Beyond adopting evidence-based policies, we need to continue to measure the extent of the challenges through better data that will help decision-makers to target solutions, especially to the most marginalized learners. The urgency of the challenge should provide the political window of opportunity to implement critical education reforms that ensure all children receive the education and holistic support they need and deserve.

Authors

Charlotte Watts

FCDO Chief Scientific Adviser and Director for Research and Evidence

Robert Jenkins

Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF

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