3 recommendations for gender-responsive remote learning during future COVID-19 school disruptions

With COVID-19 on course to disrupt a third consecutive school year, how can governments and education practitioners enhance remote learning when and where schools are closed? Read how the health crisis is affecting girls’ education and what research suggest as best ways to educate girls in lower-income countries in times like this.

September 16, 2021 by Christina Kwauk, Unbounded Associates, Dana Schmidt, Echidna Giving, and Erin Ganju, Echidna Giving
5 minutes read
Students lining up at the Miritini Primary School in Mombasa County, Kenya. April 2017. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Students lining up at the Miritini Primary School in Mombasa County, Kenya. April 2017
Credit: Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

COVID-19 is on course to disrupt a third consecutive school year. The prospect of continued school closures has heightened concerns about learning loss, especially for the world’s most vulnerable, hardest to reach girls. How can governments and education practitioners enhance remote learning when and where schools are closed?

We looked at emerging evidence, including from a portfolio of research in response to COVID-19 funded by Echidna Giving, a private funder supporting the best ways to educate girls in lower-income countries. We came to three conclusions:

  • Design strategies to identify and reach students who are least able to engage remotely.
  • Prioritize low-tech or no-tech remote learning solutions.
  • Emphasize personalized outreach and face-to-face interaction, especially for the hardest-to-reach.

Here’s a look at why:

Remote learning is a challenge for girls and boys alike.

Students spend much less time learning remotely than when schools are open—about 5.7 fewer hours in western and central Africa. Low access to technology partially explains this. A survey of over 1,000 adolescent girls and boys in Wajir, Kenya, found that only 20% of adolescents own a mobile phone. In Uganda, 35% of households do not own a radio.

Families also may not be aware of remote learning opportunities and/or may not have time to support children to access these opportunities.

In Pakistan, while 60% of households surveyed owned a television, only one-third of children in these families actually watched government-provided “teleschool.” In western and central Africa, 42.9% of households surveyed had access to the internet, but less than a quarter of children in these households used the internet for remote learning.

Where remote learning is happening, initial concerns that it would be a lot more challenging for girls than boys have been partially allayed.

A study in Pakistan suggests that girls are engaging in more hours of remote learning than boys (around 0.3 hours more, on average). And more parents in Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone reported reading to their daughters (40%) and talking to them about school (63%) during school closures than with their sons (28% and 53%, respectively).

Abramala Ruhainatu, 14 years old and student at Gbimsi Junior High School in Savelugu, a town in the Northern Region of Ghana. May 2016. Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer
Abramala Ruhainatu, 14 years old and student at Gbimsi Junior High School in Savelugu, a town in the Northern Region of Ghana. May 2016.
GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

But the gendered demands on girls’ time—especially for adolescent girls—are detrimental to remote learning.

Studies in Kenya and other eastern African countries illustrate that adolescent girls have been less engaged in remote learning than their male counterparts. In some cases, boys do an additional hour of remote learning.

In Kenya, up to 74% of adolescent girls, compared to 46% of adolescent boys, reported household chores as a distraction from remote learning. (Notably, 13% of boys reported income-generating activities as a distraction compared to only 9% of girls).

Gender norms may have a more pronounced effect on older adolescent girls’ time. In a study of COVID-19’s impacts after the first 3 months of school closures in Kenya, researchers found that over 95% of older adolescent girls between 15-19 years had completed some school work from home, compared to 100% of younger adolescent girls between 10-14 years.

Decisionmakers and practitioners need a disaggregated view—by gender and age—to understand barriers to remote learning and to better tailor their response to different subgroups of learners.

Likewise, girls and boys’ participation in remote learning also needs to be monitored over time. Evidence from Pakistan collected across three different points of time during the pandemic demonstrates that time spent learning can fluctuate across waves of COVID-19 and cycles of school closure. Similar findings have been observed in Kenya.

Low-tech approaches leveraging SMS texting and phone calls can be cost-effective ways to mitigate learning loss.

In Botswana and Nepal, randomized controlled trials have illustrated that texting mathematics problems to parents for their primary school children to complete, in addition to 15-20 minute phone calls from teachers to discuss the problems, can improve students’ learning outcomes equivalent to a full learning-adjusted year of schooling per US$100 spent.

They find equal effects for girls and boys. While we do not know whether similar effects could be seen for adolescents, such an intervention suggests that simple, low-tech nudges may remind students, especially girls, of their academic capabilities and their student identity to keep them interested in learning.

A teacher works with a class 10 student at Shree Krishna Ratna School in Chautara, Ward 5, Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal. June 2019. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
A teacher works with a class 10 student at Shree Krishna Ratna School in Chautara, Ward 5, Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal. June 2019
GPE/Kelley Lynch

Technology access is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding barriers to girls’ remote learning and engagement during the pandemic.

In addition, girls have not had enough support from teachers to adapt to remote learning methods. Their homes are full of distractions that make it difficult to study—they are noisy, crowded, and demand girls to care for family members and do chores.

It is no wonder adolescent girls are reporting high levels of academic anxiety, symptoms of depression, and decreased motivation to continue learning. These circumstances put adolescent girls at greater risk of not re-enrolling when schools re-open, which we have written about elsewhere.

For the most vulnerable girls, whom even low-tech efforts may fail to reach, anecdotal accounts show the importance of home visits by mentors and socially distanced girls’ clubs.

Community-based organizations, whose field operations were not fully impeded by COVID-related lockdowns, have printed and hand-delivered learning materials and basic supplies like menstrual hygiene materials.

They have provided psychosocial and academic support and counseling to some of the hardest to reach girls. While the impact of these efforts is yet unclear, early insights point to the critical role that mentors play as lifelines for adolescent girls to school and to their educational aspirations.

Prolonged school closures have had devastating effects on students. As we face the prospects of future COVID-19-related school disruptions this year, the least we can do is apply lessons learned from these closures—and heed the recommendations voiced by adolescent girls in India, eastern Africa, and elsewhere—to mitigate further learning loss.

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The effects that closure of schools have on the students especially the girls: since the Covid-19, many of the girls in Liberia are pregnant and some of them have given birth. If a strategies are not designed, every affect that GPE made to educate girls in Liberia may go back to square one. I believe that the parents of these children should be part of these strategies, if they are orphans, the counselors or guardians should be part of these strategies. Students in Liberia don't like to read, especially when they are not in school. Online studies is impossible because only 40 percent of the Liberian students own phones, and about 25 percent of of the 40 percrnt own bottom phones. Distance learning Will be little bit difficult for the Liberian students especially the less fortunate ones.

In reply to by Dr. Stephen Railey

Thanks for your comment, Dr. Railey! You raise a really great point about the need to include parents in girls' education strategies--something which we will touch upon in another upcoming blog looking at what COVID has taught us about the role of parents. We also have another upcoming blog looking at the impact of COVID on pregnancy, which as some of the studies we cite, is a driving factor (alongside and compounded by economic barriers) of girls' drop out during COVID. Here is a link to one of the studies that we have found extremely insightful: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c86d4507fdcb8fc46e7d529/t/60d4f…

The situation of teenage pregnancy is also very high in Uganda as a result of the school closures. This posses a threat that many of these girls may not be in position to return back to school once they are re-opened. It therefore calls for lots of stakeholders to sensitize the community members and in some instances influence policies so that the school environment is made welcoming for these child mothers once they get back to school. They need to be supported to complete the school cycle. Thanks for such a great report @Echidna Giving.

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