Reopening schools should be a priority, but students will need sustained support to adjust to ‘new normal’
The losses children have incurred from missing out on formal school education may never be recouped. That is why reopening of schools can’t wait, but how to do it is also equally important
Education for millions of children is still disrupted months after COVID first showed up. As of today, almost about 18 months after the closure of educational institutions, primary and secondary schools are shuttered in 19 countries, affecting over 156 million students. The losses children and young people have incurred from missing out on school may never be recouped. That is why reopening of schools can’t wait, but how to do it is also not less important.
“This should not go on. Schools should be the last to close and first to reopen,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay had said in a joint statement, just before the UNESCO’s Global Education meet held on July 13 on the margins of the annual UN High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development.
A survey conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the OECD was also released on this occasion, which pointed out the risks of not reopening schools.
The survey revealed that around one in three countries are not yet implementing remedial programmes to help students catch up on their learning. Only one third of the 143 countries surveyed are taking steps to measure learning losses at primary and lower-secondary levels, which include mainly high-income countries, though measuring learning loss is a critical first step towards mitigating its consequences.
The joint statement released ahead of the meeting had argued that governments have too often shut down schools in their efforts to limit transmission of COVID-19 and kept them closed for prolonged periods, even when the epidemiological situation didn’t warrant it. These actions were frequently taken as a first recourse rather than a last measure. In many cases, schools were closed while bars and restaurants remained open.
It was argued that from learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health.
The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages.
The losses for parents and caretakers are equally heavy. Keeping children at home is forcing parents around the world to leave their jobs, especially in countries with no or limited family leave policies.
That is why reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait. Reopening cannot wait for cases to go to zero. There is clear evidence that primary and secondary schools are not among the main driver of transmission.
The statement also argued that transmission in schools is manageable in most settings. Reopening schools cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated. “We can reopen schools safely, and we must,” it said.
The survey has revealed that fewer than a third of low and middle-income countries have reported that all students had returned to in-person schooling, heightening the risk of learning loss as well as dropouts.
In 2020, schools around the world were fully closed across all four education levels. As of February 1, 2021, a total of 21 per cent countries were fully closed, but none of them were low-income countries.
Most of the countries responded to the closure with a variety of learning modalities including fully remote learning or hybrid learning, as well as other measures to mitigate potential learning losses. A total of 41 per cent countries reported extending the academic year and 42 per cent reported prioritizing certain curriculum areas or skill. However, more than half of the countries reported no adjustments made or to be made.
Preliminary evidence suggests that students affected by school closures are experiencing an absolute reduction in learning levels or slower progress than expected in a typical year. Such impact can disproportionately affect disadvantaged children, given the unequal distribution of opportunities to access remote learning.
The pandemic affected examinations at all levels in all the countries. Among low and lower middle income countries, two in three at primary, and three in four at lower secondary education rescheduled or postponed examinations compared to four in ten upper middle, and high income countries.
Globally, 28 per cent of countries in lower secondary and 18 per cent in upper secondary cancelled examinations, but no low-income country cancelled examinations at either level.
Seven in ten countries focused on improving health and safety standards at examinations centres at the upper secondary level. One in four countries at primary and lower secondary levels, and one in three at the upper secondary level adjusted the examination content, changing the number of subjects examined or questions asked.
Among high-income countries, 35 per cent adjusted the mode of administration at lower and upper secondary education, but no low-income country did.
Finally, graduation criteria were adjusted at 34 per cent of countries at the primary and 47 per cent at the upper secondary level.
As a result of lower levels of learning during school closures, many children are at risk of returning to school without having properly assimilated the course content required of their grade. In such cases, remedial instruction will be required to get children back on track. Two-thirds of the countries reported remedial measures implemented when primary and secondary schools reopened.
Governments faced numerous challenges as they transitioned to distance learning, such as limited institutional capacity to support teachers, poor access for vulnerable populations, and lack of coherent policies and funds to support remote learning.
In such conditions, especially when the pandemic is still continuing, reopening schools presents myriad challenges including health, financing, and development of initiatives to ensure all students return.
Minimizing disease transmission in schools requires a range of health measures. Schools can implement only some of these, and in other cases will need help in terms of investment and other facilities.
However, reopening school doors alone is not enough. Even after schools reopen, some students, especially the most vulnerable, especially girls, may not return to school. This is a cause of concern, as adolescent girls are at highest risk of not returning to schools in low and lower-middle income countries.
Reopening schools should thus be a priority for all countries, but it would need proper planning before and after schools reopen. As schools reopen and begin a shift into the “new normal”, education cannot go back to “business as usual”. Students will need tailored and sustained support as they readjust and catch up.
Views are personal