Schools out forever? Supporting resilient learning in the face of COVID-19

To contain the continuous spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen, at the latest count, 188 countries taking the unprecedented action of closing their nation’s schools. Over 1.5 billion learners are affected. While the measure is necessary to stop the spread, it is already having a negative effect on education, wellbeing, and health. Apart from the obvious disruption to learning, school closures are likely to have other far-reaching negative effects. Measures will be needed to support a return to normalcy and resilient learning so that children and their teachers are better prepared to address not only the impact of COVID-19 but any future threats.

Is the world ready? I fear we are not. At least, not in the Global South. To achieve resilient learning will require special efforts.

Limited access to learning opportunities will lead to widening inequalities

In such difficult and uncertain circumstances, countries have been scrambling to maintain learning in some form or another. With strict physical distancing measures in place, distance learning has exploded.

High-tech alternative options for higher-income schools include digital classrooms with real-time video classes, including for physical education. But they are hardly available to everyone despite increasing investments in e-learning and the provision of free internet connection for all in some countries.

Learners from underprivileged backgrounds often have no decent computers, no electricity or poor connectivity. For them, distance learning is simply not an option.

A child washing his hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

This is when educational programming on radio and television, as well as home-schooling, become key.

Following the example of Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis, MongoliaRwanda, and at least 30 other low- and middle-income countries now rely on radio to help their citizens learn. Yes, radio and television programming can certainly help maintain a link to learning. But, this approach is a poor substitute for schools and has many shortcomings. Lessons can be of poor quality and interaction between peers and teachers is reduced to zero.

When students eventually do return to school, those who may have missed out on distance learning or home-schooling will risk failing school examinations and/or drop out of school altogether. Many may not even be able to return to study when schools reopen.

We could see drop-out rates rise, especially in fragile contexts and among learners with special needs. As the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone showed, younger girls are at particular risk, with 16 % not returning to school after they reopened.

In the long run, access to such drastically different opportunities will put less privileged learners who cannot meaningfully continue their education during confinement at a much greater disadvantage. Existing disparities in education will magnify and socio-economic inequalities will widen.

No access to proper nutrition will lead to malnutrition and health problems

Many students depend on free, or reduced-price, school meals. But as schools close, students simply will not get healthy and nutritious meals that give them vital vitamins and micronutrients. The World Food Programme estimates that substituting one meal, normally free at school, per day over a month for one child will amount to about 10% of poor household’s monthly income.

The lack of a regular nutritious diet will lead to heightened health vulnerabilities and, as a result, could severely impact children’s ability to benefit from – and even participate in – learning.

A child wears a self-made mask to class in an Indian school. Credit: Mahesh Kumar A./AP

Since school closures began, many countries have implemented various measures to support more vulnerable students. These measures range from delivering school lunches to families, providing take-home meals, and supporting families with cash or vouchers. Many poorer countries may not be able to do this unless aided by donors.

It is too early to assess whether these programs are reaching those most in need and, if they do, we must imagine that these meals have to feed a whole family and not just one child.

No access to a safe environment of schools will put more student at risk of violence

Schools provide learners with structurefocus, a sense of belonging, and social contact. Now, parents and guardians are unexpectedly having to fill this void, placing a heavy burden on many families.

Parents may not have skills, knowledge, and resources to support learning. They may have to be at work if they are essential workers or find additional ways to make ends meet. They may have to care for family members who become ill. And let’s not forget all the regular household chores and childcare.

Families will struggle to match the learning and care support that schools provide.

A man disinfecting an empty classroom once the school was closed. Credit: UNICEF.

For some children, very sadly, their home does not provide a similar safe haven of learning and support that their school provides. UNICEF has warned us that hundreds of millions of children and young people are likely to experience more threats to their safety and wellbeing while schools are closed during the pandemic.

The horrifying reality for many vulnerable children and young people is becoming trapped in a home with such individuals with no place to escape. As stress increases due to whole household isolation, so is the likelihood of violence and abuse against children and other vulnerable members.

Girls are particularly vulnerable. Sexual exploitation and abuse and other forms of gender-based violence could increase significantly, warns UNICEF.

For children and youth living through armed conflicts, schools not only offer a sense of normalcy and stability,  they also provide physical protection from exploitation and recruitment by militant groups. With school closures, this loss of protection, as well as psychological and emotional support, may have dire consequences.

This could interrupt learning and lead to limited, if any, social interaction with peers. But there are other threats for children. Staying at home also has repercussions for children’s behaviors and emotional wellbeing, including potential for the development of risky behaviors, mental illnesses, and substance abuse.

For those who have access to the internet, more time at home may expose them to child sexual abuse material and different forms of online violence, such as online bullying.

Limited support will worsen teachers’ economic situation and mental wellbeing

Teachers now find themselves under additional pressure. Some have already been sent home without any pay and others are being forced to work remotely, perhaps for the first time, designing and mastering new ways of teaching and engaging their students.

Many of these teachers are in under-resourced schools that cannot create digital classrooms or support every student. Already overwhelmed with the needs of their own families in such a challenging time, these new stresses are likely to lead to teacher burnout and increase mental health issues.

A child attends an online class in China during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Reuters.

When schools reopen, teachers will be tasked with not simply resuming normal classes, but with supporting their students’ emotional wellbeing. They won’t be able to provide either if their own mental health and wellbeing are not taken care of.  Yet children need to develop resilience to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss, and adapt to change. That is where their teachers can help: Resilient learning is necessary to sustain shocks in life, whether from COVID-19 or other threats.

What can be done to offset adverse effects of COVID-19 on education: Resilient learning measures

COVID-19 has shown to us how vulnerable, inequitable, and inflexible education can be in some contexts and how difficult it is to adapt to unique challenges posed by newly emerging shocks. We need a whole-society preparedness to have an immediate response to halt threats posed by a crisis of such scale and to lay a strong foundation for recovery. And the ability to recover from future threats will require putting in place what is needed for resilient learning.

Before we return to normalcy, however, it is critical to understand what immediate support is and will be needed in the coming months and even years to boost resilient learning.

A child looking out the window, unable to go outside to play. Credit: UNICEF.

First is re-enrolling students, especially in instances when their families cannot afford to pay fees. This will be especially a challenge in some countries where families’ economic vulnerabilities in the time of crisis may lead to child labor and child marriages.

Second is addressing any mental health issues among students and teachers as many could be traumatized due to the loss of a family member or other adverse impacts of the coronavirus. What education in humanitarian contexts has taught us is that one of the key initial steps is the provision of psychosocial support and social-emotional learning. If mental health issues are left untreated, they can lead to severe long-lasting mental health problems and even suicide.

Third is ensuring that students and teachers receive the necessary support to overcome challenges inflicted on their families by COVID-19. This includes identifying and addressing gaps in learning, helping them to adjust to school routine, providing them with nutrition, supporting pregnant and mothering girls, waiving fees and helping with other expenses for those who lost a breadwinner or whose families were financially hurt during the crisis.

Fourth is implementing and strengthening adult education and lifelong learning opportunities to help families in coping and understanding how to support their children’s and their own well-being during and after the crisis.

About the Author / Dr Yulia Nesterova.

Yulia is a research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods, University of Glasgow where her work focuses on education and sustainable urban development in Africa and Asia. She previously consulted UNESCO on education for peace, sustainable development, and prevention of violent extremism and worked across the world on projects to support education, rights, and wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalised populations.


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