The Emergency at our Doorstep: Expanding the Reach of Education in Emergencies

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Teaching and Learning
Teacher Professional Development

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

Educators in the global North can benefit from the guidance, standards, support, and experience of the EiE sector

As schools have shuttered around the world, the urgency of education in emergencies (EiE) has arrived at many of our doorsteps, across the global North and South. What role do those of us working and researching in the field of EiE have to play in this unprecedented moment in time?

We spent the past month interviewing elementary school teachers and administrators in a diverse district in the United States to learn about their experiences providing emergency education during this pandemic. In the face of persistent racial, social, and economic disparities and systems-level challenges exacerbated by the emergency, we found teachers striving to cultivate caring online environments and provide high quality learning experiences in a myriad of creative ways while also struggling, both professionally and personally, to meet these complex challenges.  

Many educators we spoke with feel they are “shooting in the dark” developing an education model and content in an unfamiliar environment. As one teacher explained, “guidelines are not in place anymore—we’re in the wild west now.”  Beyond academics, teachers are simultaneously worried about students’ wellbeing, and they expressed particular concern that food insecurity, abuse, or violence, already present in these communities, would increase during the pandemic. The experiences these teachers shared reveal educators struggling to teach all students in the face of deep discontinuities in systems, supports, and daily experiences. 

All of this suggests to us that the field of education in emergencies has an important role to play in supporting educators around the world at this critical moment in time. 

The educators we spoke with intuitively understand the importance of schooling in an emergency and are striving to maintain a sense of normalcy for their students, while focusing on emotional support first and academics second. Said one kindergarten teacher, “I just care more about how they're doing as little people navigating their world.” Teachers have reached out to their students and families by making phone calls, posting videos, or even leaving messages of encouragement in sidewalk chalk by students’ homes. Their messages are aimed at boosting student morale: “I love my kids and I hope that they can hear that and feel that from me.”

Successes and concerns around academic goals have varied. Overall, teachers describe distance learning as a “huge learning curve” for everyone, noting that teachers are developing new ways of teaching while students are figuring out “how to be a learner in a different way” without the presence of a supportive classroom community. Distance learning poses particular challenges for the youngest students, those with developmental delays, those in charge of siblings, or children of essential workers now in daycare, to name a few. Teachers worry distance learning is exacerbating existing inequalities and will result in trauma in their students. 

In the face of current challenges, educators are already imagining ways that they can ‘build back better’ when this pandemic has passed. Several teachers pointed to the growing collaboration between teacher teams as a silver lining in the situation. One teacher noted that meeting daily with her team to develop lesson plans, brainstorm pedagogical techniques, and share their challenges and success sharpens her teaching skills and expressed hope that such collaboration could continue. Another teacher explained that distance learning has encouraged teachers to move beyond tests and quizzes and develop more creative assessment practices. He was optimistic that teachers would incorporate these and other innovations once they return to school, noting that “this has given us the opportunity to expand our ideas.”

While teachers pour energy into supporting students over a digital divide, they, too, are struggling with the daily realities of living under a pandemic. As teachers work to stay strong and composed for their students, they are simultaneously processing their own emotions while also caring for other family members at home. One teacher explained that “it has felt so overwhelming at times that I just have kind of shut down.” Some teachers felt supported by their administration and others did not, but they expressed a shared sentiment that “we will just keep trying.”

We are inspired by the commitment of the teachers we interviewed, yet dismayed that they feel they have to build emergency education from scratch. As scholars of comparative education, with a focus on education in emergencies and social emotional learning, we know that there is a rich body of literature and practical experience around the field of education in emergencies, including the INEE Minimum Standards. Yet how might this work reach educators in the US at this critical moment? 

Rebecca Winthrop has argued that the EiE community can offer “know-how and good practice” to educators, schools, and education systems at this time. We have seen great work coming out of the EiE field in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including INEE’s efforts, guidance from the IASC (with UNICEF, WHO, and IFRC) and UNESCO, to name a few. Yet, the teachers and school administrators in the US that we interviewed are wholly unfamiliar with these resources.

While it is understandable and important that the EiE field maintains a focus on education in under-resourced and crisis contexts, we need to find ways to reach new audiences—including educators in the global North—who may benefit from the guidance, standards, and support that have been developed over time in our field. A range of organizations and researchers around the world have collaborated with educators to document and analyze experiences of education in emergencies, and develop tools, guidance, and best practices that support the provision of high quality education in times of crisis.  The strategies developed by communities around the world who have been grappling with emergency education for years are likely to be valuable and relevant for educators and policy makers at local, regional, and national levels. 

Here are some initial thoughts about building partnerships and sharing knowledge at various levels:

  1. Policy makers at local, regional, and national levels are currently designing stop-gap educational measures. We encourage EiE actors to leverage their existing relationships and make research-backed guidance more widely known. Consider public outreach, like the use of op-eds.
  2. Educators are jumping into the fray and redesigning both their curricula and their pedagogy. Their work could be strengthened by facilitating partnerships and knowledge sharing between experienced emergency educators and those newly teaching through a crisis situation. Consider connecting with teachers’ unions and professional associations to facilitate connections, share tools and strategies, and support professional development.
  3. Education in emergencies researchers should partner with scholars working on domestic education who typically have established ties with local school systems. We should strive to bridge the international-domestic silos of the academy to foster collaboration, connect with local educators, and expand our expertise into new domains.

Our research suggests that these conversations are urgent and these are such a few ideas to begin the discussion. We are in uncharted territory with a global need for emergency education, which will likely continue for years. Education will play an essential role not only during the pandemic itself, but as we move beyond the pandemic through phases of reconstruction and rehabilitation. We know that education can be life-saving and life-sustaining for children and families everywhere. We encourage EiE scholars and practitioners to expand their reach to help ensure that all educators and all children are able to access high quality education during this emergency.

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