Overview of emerging country-level response to providing continuity under COVID-19 What steps are being taken to reach the most disadvantaged students during the period of Covid-19 school closure?

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Summary of report

Scope of study

  • This report provides a rapid summary of country-level responses to the management of school closures in 2020, with a focus on the needs of disadvantaged students and the role of technology.
  • We consider low-income, middle-income and high-income countries. • We take a broad view of ‘disadvantage’ recognising that it presents itself in several different forms: socio-economic status, ethnicity, language group, gender, geography (including the challenges of remote rural communities), special educational needs and disability. Some students are subject to multiple disadvantages such as children in poor households with disabilities living in remote locations.
  • We have looked for references to all aspects of disadvantage in country-level responses but we have not given prominence to gender. We recognise, of course, that many girls and young women are subject to serious disadvantage but the needs of girls and young women in the context of school closure are the subject of another report published in tandem with this report.
  • We recognise that access to food is immensely important for many disadvantaged students during the Covid-19 crisis, but arrangements to ensure continuity in feeding are outside the scope of this study.
  • Our starting point was the collection of Covid-19 country-level response documents curated by IIEP- UNESCO on Planipolis: the portal of national education plans and policies. We were also guided by the catalogue of country-level ‘EdTech’ responses to Covid-19 identified by the World Bank. We supplemented plans from these sources with additional documents found through searches and personal recommendations.

Key themes

In seeking to provide for disadvantaged students during school closures, governments should begin by systematically auditing the ‘digital divide’ and design a distance learning regime that is fit for context.

In the context of school closures, equity problems arise when disadvantaged students lack access to the essential resources prescribed for distance learning. There is a need for a blend of high-tech (online learning), low-tech (radio and TV broadcasting) and no-tech (hardcopy workbooks) educational provision. The exact mix depends upon the capacity of the education systems. Papua New Guinea, Chile and South Korea each developed a distinctive distance learning solution that was based on a systematic audit of the available technology, identifying the exact dimensions of the digital divide. The result was a ‘fit-for-context’ solution. In Papua New Guinea, online learning is entirely unrealistic for most learners and students in remote communities will require hardcopy workbooks. In Chile, online learning is feasible in most urban areas, but not in remote rural areas, where workbooks are needed instead. South Korea possesses a digital infrastructure permitting almost all students to participate in online learning. Meanwhile, in Iran, there was a misalignment between ambitious high-tech solutions and the access difficulties faced by disadvantaged rural communities.

During the design and implementation of the distance learning regime, governments should prioritise the needs of highly vulnerable, disadvantaged students, such as children with disabilities.

We found that many low-income countries paid relatively little attention to the needs of students with special educational needs and disabilities. There is a grave danger that this already marginalised group will be further disadvantaged by the school closure crisis. There are examples of promising practice in the response of middle-income and high-income countries. For instance, the government of Costa Rica instructed specialist teachers to adapt the mainstream resources provided for distance learning so that they are accessible for students with disabilities. In all countries, there is a need for disaggregated data, enabling policymakers to understand how students with different disabilities are engaged with education during a time of school closures.

There is a need to ensure that the distance learning of disadvantaged students is properly monitored and that quality assurance mechanisms give a ‘voice’ to disadvantaged students and their families.

In the first phase of the school closure crisis, the emphasis was typically on continuity rather than the quality of learning. Many country plans say relatively little about monitoring and the importance of granular data relating to the level of engagement of disadvantaged students, analysed in terms of different dimensions of disadvantage. Policymakers should ensure that clear metrics are established so that the effective provision of education to disadvantaged students can be carefully measured. Policy should be regularly reviewed and, if necessary modified, in response to issues that emerge the monitoring data. Monitoring and quality assurance mechanisms should give a ‘voice’ to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their families.

Governments should take action to close the household-level technology gap between disadvantaged and more privileged students, while recognising that remote learning requires skilful teaching as well as appropriate technology.

In many low-income countries, there are plans to distribute radios to disadvantaged households. Teachers require guidance and training on how students can engage with radio or TV in the absence of a classroom teacher as mediator and guide. In some high-income countries, considerable resources have been devoted to the distribution of internet-enabled devices. These approaches were intended to ensure more equitable access to distance learning. There has been little attention to the question of how to ensure that the new equipment will be used effectively. There is a substantial body of relevant research which emphasises the need for skilful teacher mediation if students are to benefit from new technology. For disadvantaged students, access to online learning can be enhanced through effective public-private partnerships with technology companies. In line with World Bank guidance, many governments have been active in negotiating arrangements with private sector telecommunications companies and internet service providers to reduce or eliminate household costs associated with online learning. In a few cases, there have also been schemes to increase internet connectivity in remote rural areas.

There is a need to providing role clarity for teachers and other professionals so that they understand their responsibilities for ensuring the learning continuity of disadvantaged students.

Disadvantaged students need personal support from education professionals during school closures. In several jurisdictions, there have been impressively high levels of specificity about the responsibilities of teachers. One good example is the Amazon region in Brazil, where teachers have been given clear instructions as to how they should enhance student engagement with educational broadcasting. School leaders have a key role to play in monitoring the engagement of disadvantaged students in remote learning and providing feedback to higher authorities on any problems and on the effectiveness of external support. The responsibility of key ‘middle tier’ officials, such as district education officers, should be unambiguously stated.

Governments should build coalitions with parents or caregivers and non-government organisations to support continuity of learning for disadvantaged students.

Partnership with parents and other caregivers is an essential precondition for successful remote learning, but this can be particularly challenging for poor families and parents of children with disabilities. Many governments recognise this. Governments should use all available media to promote an understanding of the distance learning model and ways in which parents and caregivers can support learners. In New Zealand, the ministry of education has taken steps to engage with the families of Pacific Island heritage, broadcasting short radio programmes which explore different facets of family support for student home study. Helpline services can play an important role. In Jamaica, the National Parenting Support Commission is running a national network of parent helplines with a focus on support for disadvantaged families. The helpline service is intended to assist families both in terms of continuity of learning and in other issues, such as difficulties accessing food during the current crisis. Non-government organisations can play an important part in provision of support. In South Africa, a not-for-profit organisation has organised a national parent WhatsApp support line for families with children with disabilities.