5 priorities to promote continuity of learning in crisis-affected countries and fragile contexts during the covid-19 pandemic

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Social and Emotional Learning
Teacher Wellbeing
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS)

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.

As per March 30, the covid-19 pandemic has shuttered schools in 165 countries, leaving 1.52 billion children, equal to 87% of the total enrolled students, out of school.

Courtesy of Andrea Naletto; original article published on 2 April 2020.

Photo: young learners in East Timor. By Andrea Naletto (April 2010)
Young learners in East Timor. Photo credit: Andrea Naletto, April 2010

In industrialized countries, covid-19 has caused a sudden and unprecedented educational disruption. The overnight shift to remote learning has not been trouble free. Spotty internet connectivity at home, limited mobile data plans, one device to be shared among siblings, etc. have represented initial barriers for a fast adoption of elearning solutions. In my home country, Italy, the government swiftly introduced a €85 million package to support distance learning for 8.5 million students and improve connectivity in isolated areas. Despite initial setbacks, rich countries have leveraged widespread internet infrastructure, extensive private ownership of digital devices and teachers’ digital literacy, to secure education continuity via tech-enabled remote learning. Furthermore, in developed countries, despite socio-economic differences, children’s basic survival needs (shelter, food, clothing, medical care and protection from harm) are largely secured. This, coupled with supportive home environments, facilitates home schooling.

The pandemic has now aggressively spread into low and middle-income countries, including in crisis-affected and fragile contexts. Nearly 90% of refugee and displaced population reside in developing countries that often struggle to provide basic services, such as health and education, to their own population. Armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate change induced disasters and protracted crises had already disrupted the education of 75 million children and youth mostly living in crisis-affected countries. In refugee camps, host communities, squatter areas and disadvantaged neighborhoods, ensuring continuity of learning during the covid-19 pandemic is obviously a much more complex challenge than in rich countries. In some of the most crowded refugee camps around the world, social distancing is impossible, medical resources insufficient and hand-washing with soap is a privilege. In such contexts, though, it becomes critical to mitigate the immediate and long-term disruptions to education caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

On this third blog post of my mini series “education in the time of corona virus”, I reflect on 5 priorities that governments, donors, NGOs and individuals should consider to ensure continuity of learning for vulnerable, migrants, refugee and displaced young people living in developing countries and poor nations.

Here we go.

1. Prioritize learners’ health, protection and well-being

When schools are closed, children are at heightened risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. School closures might adversely impact children’ routine and sense of normality. By not seeing friends and classmates and, by being away from protective child-friendly learning environments, children might experience enhanced levels of toxic stress and mental health issues. Often living in overcrowded spaces, hygiene conditions are low and access to hand-washing soap might be sporadic. School closures are not only limiting access to learning, but to school meals, health programs, clean water and life-saving information.

Any educational response to covid-19 pandemic in crisis-affected contexts should, first and foremost, prioritize learners’ health, protection and well-being. Ensuring age-specific and contextually relevant health education activities to prevent and control the spread of covid-19 should be prioritized. Integrating mental health and psycho-social considerations into all response activities is also key. Promoting access to water and hygiene services should also be a paramount feature of a holistic education response. Education is vital as it can inspire and encourage students to become “champions" for disease prevention at home and in their community by talking to others about how to prevent the spread of the covid-19. 

 2. Explore innovative low-tech and no-tech solutions for distance learning

Evidence shows that vulnerable children, the longer they stay away from school the less likely they are to return. As such, to avoid a lost generation of learners due to the covid-19 pandemic, efforts need to be made to ensure continuity of learning either under auspices of the formal education system and/or in combination with alternative education programs run by NGOs, civil society actors and communities. The focus should be on ensuring that the most vulnerable groups such as girls and poor children, who will be hit the hardest by school closures, can continue their education.

In crisis-affected contexts and poor countries, access to internet, computers, tablets or smartphones is either limited or even nonexistent. Even if some digital infrastructure were in place, teachers and school leaders are largely unprepared for a sudden shift to remote learning. For these reasons, promoting tech-enabled virtual learning becomes much less feasible. Against this backdrop, low-tech or no-tech distance learning solutions such as (interactive) radio/TV programs, mobile-based and self-learning programs become a viable option. These programs often require minimal or no connectivity where learners follow a radio/tv program in combination with supplementary off-line self-directed work. There are also solutions offering offline access to curated educational libraries only requiring internet connection for the initial download or occasional update. There are dozens of best practices from the Ebola pandemic and the Syrian crisis from which to learn from. These programs should always ensure parents, caregivers and older siblings also involved in the home learning and tutoring process.

This creative and visually appealing blog offers 10 no-internet remote learning activities to help students learn when not at school, which innovative educators can creatively adapt to any context.

3. Ensure teachers and educators are protected and supported

Teachers’ role and contribution is more critical than ever. They are front-line responders to both ensure that learning continues but also in communicating measures that prevent the spread of the virus, ensuring that children are safe and supported. This unprecedented situation is putting them under significant stress.

The Teacher Task Force, a UNESCO-led international alliance working for teachers and teaching, has issued a Call for Action on Teachers calling to call on governments, education providers and donors to ensure that teachers get the psycho-social support, financial and material resources to make sure that quality teaching and learning can continue during the crisis. Continuing to pay teachers and staff during school closures is also critical.

4. Leverage and build local resilience

The covid-19 crisis represents an opportunity to accelerate progress towards global commitments of promoting localization and local leaderships. Responses should build on and leverage locally available resources and leadership. Communities can collaborate, share information, and review plans with local health officials to help protect the whole school community, including those learners with special health needs. 

5. Support institutional strengthening “to build back better”

For years, education in emergencies (EiE) practitioners have been promoting the idea that crisis and emergencies represent opportunities to strengthen education systems for the better promoting greater equity and quality. As per other man-made crisis or natural disasters, the covid-19 represents an opportunity to strengthen systems in preparedness, planning and response to prevent and mitigate future crisis. For example, safe school guidelines implemented in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease from 2014 to 2016 helped prevent school-based transmissions of the virus.

Key resources for education programming in crisis-affected contexts:

  • INEE Resource Page on Coronavirus (COVID-19) [link]

Main sources for this blog post:

  • The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, Technical Note: Protection of Children during the Coronavirus Pandemic, Version 1, March 2020 [link]
  • The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO). Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools. March 2020 [link]


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.