Education Disrupted: Stories from the Frontline of COVID-19’s Education Crisis

Special Focus : Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 06, 2020

The global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is unparalleled. Overnight, entire economies, education systems, and social infrastructures came to a grinding halt, laying bare the interconnectedness of our modern world and the vulnerability that comes with it. As widespread physical lockdown lurks as an ever-present reality, the question arises how to develop systems and societies that possess the resilience needed to thrive under conditions of constant uncertainty.  

In the domain of education, unprecedented mass school closures affected more than three-quarters of the world’s students. At the height of the crisis in April 2020, UNESCO reported that over 1.5 billion children were out of school. Simultaneous shocks to health and financial systems further heightened uncertainty and fragility, exposing the inequities and deficiencies of our global schooling systems, and highlighting the interdependence of education and learning with the well-being of our communities.  

Just as governments scrambled to rally first responders to equip their health systems for the onslaught of the virus, education officials at all levels, in addition to parents and caregivers, mounted their own rapid response plans to keep children learning remotely. The education stakes were high, even if less obvious than infection and mortality figures. Research from the Brookings Institution estimates that even in a wealthy developed country like the United States, the average learning loss for K–12 students due to just four months of school shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to roughly USD $33,464 in future earnings per student—the equivalent of 63% of the average annual salary. The overall economic impact is even more enormous, at an estimated USD $2.5 trillion, or 12.7 percent of GDP.

In less wealthy countries, the stakes are even greater and extend far beyond economics. At the outset of the crisis, UNESCO warned that the risks of wide-scale school closures in the developing world could far outweigh the benefits, especially for girls, who are 2.5 times more likely to drop out of school than boys during prolonged school closures.  Indeed, data collected by Plan International during the Ebola outbreak that swept through West Africa in 2014-2016 showed that school closures had a devastating impact not only on learning, but also on child protection and safety, demonstrating the reality that school provides students with so much more than just a curriculum.

In wealthier settings, the education response to COVID-19 largely meant that entire curriculums migrated online, with parents standing in—where they could—as supervisors of home learning. However, for poorer countries and communities, which even before the crisis were confronting wide-scale health, economic, and social fragility, the experience has looked vastly different. COVID-19 has presented more of a struggle for survival than one of convenience, with many students unable to access any education at all.  

What follows in this section of the anthology are snapshots from the frontline of the COVID-19 education crisis. Based on presentations delivered at a WISE-Salzburg Global Seminar virtual convening in April 2020, the essays in this section describe the experiences of six NGOs working on the frontlines around the world, including in Canada, India, Italy, Kenya, Morocco, and South Africa. Despite the diversity of these contexts, their experiences share many similarities and speak to a set of basic themes that lie at the heart of the education response to COVID-19: innovation born of necessity, the importance of well-being, inequity in our world’s education systems, and human resilience.


Necessity is the Mother of Innovation

As Nadine Trepanier details the work of the Ontario Principals Council during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in her contribution to this collection, she refers to the old proverb “necessity is the mother of invention.” I would take this a step further to say that necessity is the mother of innovation. This certainly has been true of education during this crisis, and it is a consistent theme of our contributors. Amid the tragedy, disruption, and fear brought on by the pandemic, new channels of innovation, creativity, and systemic transformation have also emerged at unprecedented levels. Around the world, school systems as a whole have been forced to rethink learning models at a pace and scale never before seen, and rapidly build, test, and pilot new structures to accommodate a completely different reality. 

A central feature of these innovation journeys is collaboration, reflecting the fact that amid crisis often comes unity. For 2018 WISE Award winner Partners for Possibility, innovation has meant forging ahead with over 40 new partnerships in regions across South Africa in order to reach more under-resourced school principals than ever, ensuring that they have virtual engagement and support, including stress reduction and psychological counseling, during the crisis. For Teach for All in Morocco, innovation has been born out of collaboration with community leaders and parents in rural regions to develop and deliver curriculum content via WhatsApp, SMS, and voice notes that enable schools to reach all students, even those with illiterate parents and caregivers or who lack access to digital platforms. 

In India, Azad Oomen and Baidurya Bhusan Sen have used the disruption of the crisis to innovate how their organization delivers digital professional learning to school leaders by focusing on building online communities of practice. Core to their mission is providing a safe space for educators to collaborate, share ideas, and feel connected and supported as they do the difficult work of translating broad government directives into institutional-level strategies to meet the needs of their schools and learners. 


Well-being Matters

Another lesson reflected in these pieces, and the series as a whole, is that well-being matters. And this is true not only for students, but also for teachers, parents, and the entire education ecosystem. A key takeaway from the COVID-19 crisis is that the health of our education systems is inextricably linked with the health and well-being of our communities, whether it be economic health, physical health, or social and emotional health.   

In Kenya, as detailed by our 2020 WISE Award Finalist Deborah Kimathi, the organization Diginitas has prioritized the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the students and families they serve in their COVID-19 response strategy. Working with some of the most disadvantaged communities in Kenya, Dignitas found that 79% of serviced households had no income at all during the crisis, making education secondary in their list of concerns. “The struggle of this pandemic,” she writes “is not for comfort, but for survival.” For children in these communities, especially girls, school offers more than education, being a key source of physical and mental well-being, including protection from early marriage, pregnancy, sexual and labor exploitation, and other forms of abuse and trauma.

Similarly, in South Africa, Partners for Possibility adopted the approach of ‘Maslow before Bloom’ when they developed their rapid response strategy, and made sure to collaborate with food relief organizations to facilitate deliveries to families. They also produced a series of digital support tools for stress reduction and psychological support.

Even in a less disadvantaged context, like Canada, social and emotional well-being has played a central role in education efforts during the crisis. Recognizing the emotional and psychological stress on school leaders, the Ontario Principals Council engaged in a multi-level response to support school leaders in its network, including through the delivery of a wellness program for members and their families.


Economic Inequality has Severe Consequences for Education

However, by far the biggest lesson of COVID-19 for global education—and one that can be found throughout these essays—is that inequality permeates our systems. Students in economically and socially disadvantaged communities were far less likely to have access to quality remote learning programs during the crisis than students in more advantaged communities. As rightly pointed out by Lorenzo Benussi and Marcello Enea Newman in their piece “The Elephant in the Room,” school closures have undeniably caused the most damage to “the members of our educational community who were already unfairly treated by our systems to begin with: social-economically disadvantaged children and children with special educational needs and disabilities.” In fact, it has become clearer that our systems were already failing these children prior to the pandemic.

For Deborah Kimathi in Kenya, the central question as leaders begin to think about reopening schools is: What comes next for the children furthest behind? When schools reopen in the Fall, will those who have had access to online or home learning be that much further ahead of others? And, for marginalized communities in Kenya and elsewhere, there is the stark reality that many students may never have the opportunity to return to school due to the economic devastation wreaked by this pandemic. 


Systems Are Fragile but Humans Are Resilient

Robyn Whittaker and Gail MacMillan conclude their essay on the South African experience by observing crucially that “systems are fragile but human beings are resilient.” This theme too is central to all the stories captured in this volume and series.  People and governments are capable of great achievements—in leadership, in innovation, and in humanity. Just as countries have come together at the global level to defy history and science to create an effective vaccine against COVID-19 virus at unprecedented speed, the world is also in need of the same urgency, economic commitment, and political will to build back better our education systems. Please enjoy the articles that follow.