Beyond reopening schools: A practical vision for a stronger education after COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in at least one positive thing: a much greater appreciation for the importance of public schools. Let’s seize this moment and chart a vision for how education can emerge stronger from this global crisis.

September 22, 2020 by Emiliana Vegas, Brookings, and Rebecca Winthrop, Brookings
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4 minutes read
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A student in primary school in Kampala. Uganda. Photo credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank
A student in primary school in Kampala. Uganda.
Photo credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank

This blog was adapted from a longer piece by the same authors on the Brookings website.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in at least one positive thing: a much greater appreciation for the importance of public schools. Recognition of the essential caretaking role schools play in society has skyrocketed. Gratitude for teachers, their skills and invaluable role in student well-being has risen as young people struggle to learn from home. It is hard to imagine another moment in history when the central role of education in the economic, social and political prosperity and stability of nations is so well understood by the general population.

Let’s seize this moment and chart a vision for how education can emerge stronger from this global crisis.

Strong and inclusive public education systems are essential to the short- and long-term recovery of society and there is an opportunity to leapfrog towards powered-up schools, schools that are at the center of a community and leverage the most effective partners, including those emerging during COVID-19, to help learners grow and develop a broad range of skills in and out of school. Empowering parents to support their children’s education should be sustained when the pandemic subsides.

Is it realistic to envision education emerging stronger than before?

Some emerging global trends help us answer this question:

  1. Education inequalities are accelerating, especially where these inequalities were high prior to the pandemic. Pre-pandemic analysis estimated that 90% of children Iow-income countries, 50% of children in middle-income countries, and 30% of children in high income countries failed to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life. The COVID-19 pandemic still leaves more than 700 million children cut off from schools in developing countries.
  2. Innovation has suddenly moved from the margins to the center of many education systems. There is an opportunity to identify new strategies, that, if sustained, can help young people get an education that prepares them from our changing times. There are examples of new strategies and approaches that could, if scaled up, have the potential to rapidly accelerate or leapfrog progress to close the gap in education inequality. These include innovations to change the teaching and learning process by using playful learning approaches and new approaches in the way schooling is delivered, what is taught, and how teaching is done.
  3. There is newfound public recognition of how essential schools are in society and a window of opportunity to leverage this support for making them stronger.
  4. New education allies: The pandemic has galvanized new actors in the community - from parents to social welfare organizations to support children’s learning like never before. Alongside increasing recognition of the essential role of public schools, the pandemic has galvanized parts of communities that traditionally are not actively involved in children’s education like community health and social welfare organizations, technology companies and non-governmental organizations to contribute to supporting children’s learning in new ways.

Five proposed actions to guide the transformation of education systems

Based on these emerging trends, here are some actions that decisions makers can take to seize this moment and transform education systems, especially for the most disadvantaged children:

  1. Leverage public schools: put public schools at the center of education systems given their essential role in equalizing opportunity across dimensions within society. Public schools in many countries can bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and needs, providing the social benefit of allowing individuals to grow up with a set of common values and knowledge that can make communities more cohesive.
  2. Emphasize the instructional core, the heart of the teaching and learning process. How educators engage with students and instructional materials, including education technology, is crucial for learning given the strong evidence that educators are the most important school-side factor in student learning.
  3. Harness education technology: Deploy education technology to power up schools long term in a way that meets the teaching and learning needs of students and educators, otherwise, technology risks becoming a costly distraction. Despite the expectation that ed-tech would radically transform teaching and learning, the impact of ed-tech interventions on student learning have so far been mostly disappointing. Emphasis should be to support educators to embrace the comparative advantages of technology. Without involving and supporting educators in innovation, efforts will not be sustainable over time.
  4. Forge stronger, more trusting relationship between parents and teachers. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for parents and families to gain insights into the skills involved in teaching and for teachers and schools to realize what powerful allies parents can be. Indeed, some of the early evidence emerging from innovations in the pandemic point to how effective parents can be in supporting learning.
  5. Embrace science to evaluate, course correct, document, and scale new approaches that can help power up schools over time. In most countries, there is a long road to travel before we fully understand how to leverage technology or transform parent engagement to realize a powered-up school for each community. The speed and depth of change mean that it will be essential to take an iterative approach to learning what works, for whom, and under what enabling conditions.

Having a vision of the change we want to see matters and can help guide discussion, debate and ultimately action.

With the dire consequences of the pandemic hitting the most vulnerable young people the hardest, it is tempting to revert to a global education narrative that privileges access to school above all else. This, however, would be a mistake. There are enough examples of education innovations that provide access to relevant learning for those in and out of a school building to set our sights higher.

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Hi there! Thank you for sharing these ideas of transformation to improve the educational systems despite COVID 19. At Perkins International, we believe that ALL children can learn. However, this pandemic poses a real threat to many children with multiple disabilities because they are losing all the skills they worked so hard for before the pandemic. We know that parents who are empowered by partnerships with the school system, creates a huge impact on the learning of their child with disabilities during this time. Parents can also provide schools with valuable insight on what their child's learning potentials are and how the schools can help them support their needs.

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