When is the right time to reopen schools?

Keeping track of the COVID-19 situation is crucial
Nenad Stojkovic Flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Nenad Stojkovic Flickr.com CC BY 2.0

More than 90% of the world’s learners were shut out of school at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do authorities decide when it’s safe to open schools again? Randa Grob at Insights for Education talks about arming decision makers with evidence.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner:  It’s been a tough time recently for schools and schoolchildren. Why did your organization, Insights for Education, decide to start tracking school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Randa Grob-Zakhary: We’re in contact with education ministries and authorities around the world and frequently heard they were looking for more than just anecdotal evidence about school closures. They were missing an analytical view across a broad swath of countries about what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, why, and how.

To help solve this problem, we created a COVID-19 back-to-school tracker, bringing together information that is freely available but making it more useful. We combined epidemiologic data with school closure data from UNESCO and with press and ministry reports, then we began identifying patterns around the factors behind reopening.

CSG: In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have slowed, while others are entering a second wave. In other locations, the infections continue uninterrupted. With so much variation, what do decision makers absolutely need to know?

RG: By providing a granular view of when countries decided to close or re-open schools, whether the opening was staggered, and what happened to the COVID-19 caseload before and after taking those decisions, we can get a view of when countries decided it was safe. This is an important dimension for decision makers: understanding how and when other countries are reopening their schools provides input into the deliberations of the reopening task forces. Tracking is also important as some countries experience new waves of infections and have to close schools again.

“Around 70 countries closed schools before they had a single coronavirus case, and many of them happen to be among the poorest countries in the world.”

CSG: Where do you see some of the biggest risks to learning outcomes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

RG: Around 70 countries closed schools before they had a single coronavirus case, and many of them happen to be among the poorest countries in the world. This is especially concerning in the southern hemisphere, where it’s now winter and cases are increasing. The pandemic hasn’t hit its peak yet, and children have been out of school for five months already. This gap is tremendous: these children will be out of school at least half a year longer than in other parts of the world, and some may even have to repeat the entire school year. We’re also deeply concerned that many of the hardest to reach learners will not return when schools reopen, and that global education financing will suffer dramatically in the coming years. All of these factors threaten learning outcomes for children everywhere.

CSG: Educational inequity exists everywhere, but is defined differently depending on the country and culture. How have educational systems taken equity into account during the COVID-19 crisis?

RG: Despite governments’ best intentions, many children have been cast adrift and unable to access a learning environment. We’re closely monitoring how countries have reacted and particularly their measures for preserving equity, for increasing online learning or distance learning, for keeping girls in school, and so forth.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve heard from Greece, Croatia, Egypt, and Sierra Leone, for example, that they see this as an opportunity to strengthen distance learning. These countries are putting policies in place now that embed distance learning in the normal education system. Even though they don’t yet have the full connectivity and tools, they are committing to the resourcing because that helps them reach more students.

In other places, policies are more focused on children at risk, and with special needs. They receive targeted online learning, or teachers visit them because they can better manage safety and distance in a one-on-one setting, using precautions, versus a classroom setting.

“Many children have been cast adrift and unable to access a learning environment.”

CSG: What sort of feedback have you received on your COVID-19 back-to-school tracker and analyses?

RG: Just recently, we heard from an education minister and a director general for basic education that it’s been valuable for them to compare their planned response to their neighboring countries, and to see what others in the world are doing. They shaped their response policies after finding answers to questions such as: Are our measures commensurate with the COVID-19 situation in other countries? How have others handled national exams and staggered returns? What are the required preconditions for safe return? Can we learn from South Africa, France, or Denmark?…

Not only are we hearing direct feedback that our tracker and analyses are really helpful, we’re also hearing that education authorities and task forces are using the information in their decision making. And ultimately that’s our goal.

Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary is Founding Partner and CEO of Insights for Education, a non-profit, independent foundation based in Switzerland. The foundation was established in 2019 and synthesizes relevant evidence and knowledge to help global and national education decision makers solve their toughest challenges in strengthening educational equity and learning outcomes.

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