World Bank report on Covid-19’s effect on education is disappointing

COMMENT

As the spread of Covid-19 around the world has caused more than 160 countries to implement some form of school closures — closures that affect learning in the short-term and diminish economic opportunities in the future  — the World Bank this week released its report on the effects of the pandemic on education systems and the mitigation strategies countries have taken. 

When schools closed in March we at Sacred Heart College knew we had to act fast. Children needed to learn and matriculants needed to prepare for final examinations. These were unprecedented times and we had never experienced anything like this before. 

In facing an emergency, we had to triage. In our refugee children’s education programme we had to deal with food and safety needs to start with, and later worry about teaching and learning. In the college, where parents had better access to technology, we switched to remote approaches quickly.

There were many distance-learning portals and tools available, which teachers had different levels of familiarity with. These resources were not a solution in themselves, and some experts on remote learning tell us that there is only a 20% take up of these kinds of courses when children are involved. Children, and especially small children, need to be shepherded through learning and motivated to engage with the material. 

It was an opportunity for us in the network we were in to mobilise our resources and work as one. There was potential for real collaboration; but every school, who could, developed their own responses which essentially dissipated the best use of our collective resources and talent. 

So, I was keen to read what next steps might be recommended in the World Bank’s report. The report starts by saying that the pandemic threatens education progress worldwide through two major shocks: 

  • The near-universal closing of schools at all levels; and 
  • The economic recession sparked by pandemic-control measures.

By late April schools were closed in 180 countries and 85% of students worldwide were out of school. The bank argues that without major efforts to counter the effects, the school-closing shock will lead to learning loss, increased school dropouts and higher inequality, and that the economic shock will exacerbate the damage and harm households. It recommends that countries move quickly to support continued learning, thus mitigating the damage and turning recovery into new opportunities. 

The bank observes that even before the Covid-19 pandemic the world had a learning crisis. More than 258-million children were out of school and the low quality of schooling meant that many who were in school learnt too little. In low- and middle-income countries more than half of all 10-year-old children couldn’t read and understand a simple age-appropriate story. The sad thing is that it is the most disadvantaged children and youth who have the worst access to schooling, highest dropout rates and the largest learning deficits.

Learning the lessons from previous health emergencies, such as the Ebola outbreaks, the effect on education is likely to be most devastating in countries with already low learning outcomes and high dropout rates. Although school closures seem to be a logical solution to enforcing social distancing; prolonged closures have a disproportionately negative effect on the most vulnerable students. This is likely to be true for South Africa too, because these children have fewer opportunities for learning at home, and time out of school has its own economic burdens for parents who might be confronted with prolonged childcare and food shortages. 

The report notes that there is no doubt that there will be significant costs to education in the short term. With the right responses, however, we can mitigate the damage. The policies to turn education around are grouped around three overlapping phases: coping; managing continuity; and accelerating. 


In the first phase the priority is to protect student health and safety and prevent losing learning time. In addition to this, forward-thinking countries were implementing supplemental nutrition or cash-transfer programmes. In some countries, schools were able to draw on their universities and other post-secondary institutions for technology and training support.

In the second phase, with the relaxing of the rules around physical distancing, schools need to ensure that they open safely, that dropouts are minimised and that learning recovery begins. When students are back at school, learning recovery should be prioritised to prevent permanent effects on the opportunities of young people. This will require a range of measures targeted at reversing learning losses from improved classroom assessment to more focused pedagogies and curricula. These approaches need system-level guidance as well as training principals and teachers and additional learning materials.

Phase three is about improving and accelerating learning and trying to build a more equitable education system. The bank believes that after the pandemic parents, teachers, mass media and government will have changed views and perceptions about their roles in the education process. Parents, for example, will have a better understanding of the need to work jointly with schools to foster, promote and educate their children. 

It is hoped that the innovation learned during this time of disruption will show us what is possible and that the successes will be built into a new system. 

In discussing the reopening of schools, the report recognises that the process could be complex. Some schools might open partially, or reopening could start in selected schools depending on infection rates at the local level. It may also vary by grade perhaps, with lower grades and levels opening first. And even after schools have reopened for a while, they could still become a source of infection.

The bank cautions that education systems will need to prepare for gradual and statutory openings with protocols for continued physical distancing in place. While it has become a norm in countries, it is not clear if students will be able to collectively maintain this practice in school settings, surrounded by close friends and familiar teachers. Schools may need to explore alternative ways to deliver classes, such as staggered shifts or alternating weeks, and they will have to scale down ceremonies and sports events that encourage gathering. Teachers may have to learn to deliver a curriculum with minimal contact among students while still fostering a spirit of collaboration.

In general, this is a disappointing report. It seems to play down the devastating economic effect that lockdowns are having in the less-developed countries and provides little new advice on how to reopen education systems. A glaring omission in the report is that there is absolutely no reference to teacher unions, which, in places like South Africa and other developing countries, advocate strongly for the protection of teachers and guard against government decision-making on schools. 

There is an underlying optimistic tone in the report that this is an opportunity to rebuild education systems. I must admit that, from our perspective, there’s still some hope that we will find a new way to enhance the quality of education for all, and to make high-quality resources available more widely in our country. Unfortunately, we also know that there is a huge digital divide in our unequal society. Covid-19 has highlighted the inequality in our education system, which can only be corrected with political commitment to the collective work of social and economic change.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Mark Potterton
Dr Mark Potterton is primary school principal at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg
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