- Fight the disease
The first is that the fight against the disease comes first. No education minister will have taken the decision to close schools lightly. But it was necessary then, and is necessary now.
Age-appropriate information should be provided to students so they understand the reason for the closures and the nature of the enemy we face.
And given how many children in these countries are first-generation learners, don’t underestimate the value of these children as a channel for getting health messages to parents and communities.
- Deploy distance learning
Second, deploy your alternative out-of-school and distance learning solutions as rapidly as possible. When schools close, children lose an anchor to the education system that makes it much less likely they will find their way back. It is critical to provide an alternative as quickly as possible to keep them engaged. This was a problem during Ebola when it took too long to get emergency education radio broadcasts going.
The key to moving fast is to find partners with good off-the-shelf content and leverage the most appropriate technologies for getting that content out there. The right technology will depend greatly on the context: online is of limited relevance in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia where only 1 in 8 have access to the internet, whereas radio and SMS are more ubiquitous.
Distance learning is about tearing down the walls between the education system and its students, but it’s also vital to tear down walls within government. Better, faster coordination within government is vital in a crisis like this.
In particular, children’s exposure to harm - malnutrition where school meals are their main source of calories, the risk of physical and sexual abuse from family and community members - is greatly increased. To protect children, ministries of education, health, social protection and gender have to work together. That’s the third lesson.
- After the crisis, reform
Fourth, when schools do finally reopen, Ministers need to recognize the reform moment it represents. As a Minister, opportunities for radical reforms don’t come along very often. This will be one of them.
The challenges will be starker than ever: traumatized students and school staff, overcrowded classrooms, months of missed content to catch-up on. But there will also be the political will to do some radical things, and to pay for them. The work we did after Ebola to tackle the scourge of ‘ghost teachers’ who collect a paycheck without ever showing up to school is one example. Our experiment with bringing in non-state actors to manage randomly assigned government schools is another.