Getting children back to school: “We are in a hurry”

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“We were in a hurry!” That is what Jerrick Mortensen, an education leader from Denmark said recently in an event organized by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank.  Danish authorities were in a hurry to re-open schools even back in May.  “Attending school is critical for the most vulnerable children,” he emphasized.  

Worldwide, a quick critical measure to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic was to close schools. Closing was easy. However, as the world has found, the process of re-opening schools is hard. But the sentence “we are in a hurry” reveals a commendable sense of urgency.  

Why the urgency? To cope with school closures, most countries rushed to implement remote learning plans. These have generally been multiplatform programs that combine online, TV, radio, and paper material.  However, while remote learning can be a great complement of in-person education, it is not a replacement.  As a result, learning poverty – being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10 – could increase in low and middle-income countries up from the 53% pre- pandemic level to a record 63%. Unless we do more. 

Even affluent children who might be having a decent remote learning experience, are able to advance in their academic skills, and even learning some socioemotional skills, are losing out on other elements of the social experience of in-school education.

But it’s the millions of children from more disadvantaged backgrounds that are suffering from a poorer learning experience – their home environments might not be conducive to learning, and they may not have a device or internet connectivity, or even any reading material.  Many more might suffer from stress and mental health issues, particularly if parents do not have the skills or mental space during an economic crisis to provide a supportive environment.  Many will end up dropping out of the system completely (7 to 10 million, according to World Bank estimates).  Children with disabilities find it even more difficult to access the services they need.  And others might suffer from various forms of abuse.   

We were already living in a world where inequality of opportunity was intolerably high. But the schools have always played an important role in reducing inequality of opportunities – giving everyone, including the poor, a space for learning.  For many, that is now gone, and the un-equalizing impact of the pandemic is potentially immensely large. By mid-2020, almost 900 million children are still out of school. The closures are meant to protect their health, protect their relatives’ and teachers’ health from the pandemic; but the cost in terms of the future of many of those kids is extremely high and the price being paid in terms of further inequality in our societies is enormous. Can a balance be found?

We live in extraordinary times where the only certainty is uncertainty.  As time passes, some school systems are opening successfully, others with more angst and confusion. Countries where the pandemic does not seem to be under control yet are struggling to decide if it is safe enough to return, and will have to manage a protracted period of unknown scenarios with unknown probabilities, particularly since a widely available vaccine is still several months away.  

Regardless, it is essential to share the sense of urgency of Mr. Mortensen – the urgency in defining a flexible and adaptable path to a return to a richer educational experience and of putting in-school learning back into the lives of all students. 

How to return to school safely must be an urgent priority for all nations. In many cases, high levels of community transmission rates of the virus mean re-openings are still impossible. But systems must be prepared for a careful return to schools as soon as the sanitary conditions allow.  Preparation is key because the return will be – and in some cases already is – quite complex.  

If local virus transmission rates go down to manageable levels, schools and communities should be prepared to enforce strict hygiene practices and other transmission control measures – physical distancing and others – in order to get children back into school. Ideally, authorities test, trace, and isolate anyone who falls ill, and schools are ready to return to remote learning if COVID-19 cases go up again. 

The decision to reopen schools is a combination of a public health / science question, balanced with the urgent need to bring kids back. Schools may be able to open only in some areas, in a staggered way, some grades at a time, or for only few days a week or a few hours per day, and in smaller classroom sizes (as some countries are already doing). Not all teachers might be able to work on a presential basis.  

In other cases, if community transmission rates are not yet going down, it is wise to design creative and pragmatic alternative learning processes: 

First, it is useful to pragmatically simplify the curriculum, and define a minimum set of essential competencies that can reasonably be expected of students for this year and next. The fundamental skills and socioemotional support might be the priorities, and online, TV, and radio programming should support that simplified curriculum. The school calendar could be adjusted creatively, the 2020 school year might be extended, the 2021 school year might be compressed, and vacation periods adjusted, in order to cover an essential curriculum within each year.  

Second, teachers require support to continue adapting to a remote environment and continue developing ways to maintain the communication and the ability to coach students in their learning process as well as find ways to remotely assess how much learning is happening. 

Third, the home environment is as important as ever.  Hence, so, too, are policies aimed at drastically improving the conditions at home, such as expanding connectivity, facilitating cheaper – or  free – access to the internet for educational purposes, expanding the use and availability of technological resources, and providing printed learning material at home. Across the board, the home environment is extremely unequal, so investing in improving opportunities of the poorest is essential. 

Fourth, continuous and intensive support to empower parents and caregivers is needed so they can provide a safe and nurturing environment to their children.  

This is a complex management challenge that requires a lot of creativity, planning, and resources.  Fortunately, many of the investments needed to manage this situation will help build many of the traits that will be critical for the schools of the future. Education needs to be more resilient, providing a continuity of the educational experience between the school and the home.  Hence, investing in improving the home environment and providing more support to parents is critical for the future. Investing in technology at school and supporting better connectivity at home will make the work of the teacher more effective. Investing in teachers – supporting them in becoming learning coaches and growing their digital skills – is an opportunity. These investments can bring the future to today. 

Each country is defining its own path. Countries should be prepared to manage the uncertainty. In some cases, it will mean returning to classrooms under certain conditions, and where that is not possible, improving remote learning conditions as much as possible.  

The objective is not to “lose” a generation of students and avoid making the already intolerable levels of inequality even larger.


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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