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Can We Improve Education Systems Permanently As We Deal With Covid-19 Challenges?

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The world is confronting a hazard in our era to global education – a giant educational catastrophe in the sphere of health. The crisis crystallizes the dilemma policymakers are facing between closing schools (reducing contact and saving lives) and keeping them open (allowing workers to work and maintaining the economy). The severe short-term disruption is felt by many families around the world: home schooling is not only a massive shock to parents’ productivity, but also to children’s social life and learning. The global pandemic, on the one hand, targets humans’ lives – and so hits billions of candidates going to schools, colleges, universities, and affiliated institutions.

In Pakistan, and in so many other parts of the world, we have already been dealing with a learning crisis, as many students were in school but were not learning the essential skills required for life. The World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” indicator – the percentage of children who cannot read and understand at age 10 – stood at 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries. This was before the outbreak started. This pandemic has the potential to exacerbate these consequences even more if we do not act rapidly.

What should we be flustered about in this phase of the crisis that might have an immediate impact on children and youth?
(i) Losses in learning
(ii) Increased dropout rates
(iii) Children missing their most important meal of the day.

Moreover, most countries have very unequal education systems, like Pakistan, and these negative influences will be felt disproportionately by poor children. When it rains, it pours for them. It will have more serious consequences in places where they learn two plus two makes four by rote. Better-off countries are better equipped to move to online learning strategies, although with a lot of effort and challenges for teachers and parents. In middle-income and poorer countries like Pakistan, the situation is very mixed and if we do not act aptly. The vast inequality of opportunities that exists – egregious and unacceptable to start with – will be amplified. Many a candidate do not have a desk, books, internet connectivity, a laptop at home or supportive parents. Others do. What we need to avoid – or minimize as much as possible – is for those differences in opportunities to expand and cause the crisis to have an even larger negative effect on poor children’s learning. After all, parents once concerned about their children’s education are now worried for two meals a day.

Unquestionably, we are seeing a great deal of creativity in many countries. But we have already killed skill in Pakistan. Many ministries of education around the world are worried that relying exclusively on online strategies will imply reaching only candidates from better-off families. The appropriate approach in Pakistan is to practice all possible delivery modes with the infrastructure that exists today. There is a need to use online tools to ensure that lesson plans, videos, tutorials and other resources are available for some students and probably, most teachers. But there is also a need for podcasts and other resources that require less data usage. Working with telecommunication companies to apply zero-rate policies can also facilitate learning material to be downloaded on a smartphone, which more students are likely to have. Online learning via Learning Management System (LMS) works in countries where they do not rely on learning by cramming. Countries like Pakistan will encounter trouble, having always invested their hopes on notes, guides, synopses and cramming.

Radio and TV are also very powerful tools. The advantage that we have today is that through social networks, WhatsApp or SMS, ministries of education can communicate effectively with parents and teachers and provide guidelines, instructions and structure to the learning process, using content delivered by radio or TV. Remote learning is not only about online learning, but about mixed media learning, with the objective of reaching as many students as possible.

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Maintaining the engagement of candidates, particularly young secondary school students, is critical. Dropout rates are still very high in many countries, and a long period of disengagement can result in a further increase. Going to school is not only about learning math and science, but also about social relationships and peer-to-peer interactions. It is about learning to be a citizen and developing social skills. That is why it is important to stay connected with the school by any means necessary. For all students, this is also a time to develop social-emotional skills and learn more about how to contribute to society as citizens. The role of parents and family, which has always been extremely important, is critical in that task. So, a lot of the help that ministries of education provide, working through mass media, should also go to parents. Radio, TV, SMS messages can all be used to provide tips and advice to them on how to better support their children.

In many parts of the world, school feeding programs provide children with their most nutritious meal of the day. They are essential for cognitive development and well-being. These programs are complex logistical and administrative endeavours. It is not easy, but countries should find a way to provide those meals – perhaps using school buildings in an organized fashion. Alternatively, community buildings or other networks could be used. If needed, such meals for students could be distribute directly to the families. If delivering meals or food is not feasible logistically, cash transfer programs should be expanded or implemented to compensate the parents. Planning is needed, but one has to be ready to flexibly adjust plans, as the information we have about the likely paths of the pandemic changes day by day, influenced by the uncertainty around which mitigation measures countries are taking.

The process of reopening of schools might be gradual, as authorities will want to reduce agglomeration or the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic, which can affect some countries. In that uncertain context, it might be better to make decisions assuming a longer, rather than a shorter scenario. The good news is that many of the improvements, initiatives and investments that school systems will have to make might have a positive long-lasting effect.

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Some countries will be able to increase their teachers’ digital skills. Radio and TV stations will recognize their key role in supporting national education goals – and hopefully, improve the quality of their programming.

Parents will be more involved in their children’s education process and ministries of education will have a much clearer understanding of the gaps and challenges (in connectivity, hardware, integration of digital tools in the curriculum and teachers’ readiness) that exist in using technology – and be able to act upon them. All of this can strengthen the future education system in a country.

The mission of all education systems is the same. It is to overcome the learning crisis we were already living and respond to the pandemic we are all facing. The challenge today is to reduce as much as possible the negative impact this pandemic will have on learning and schooling and build on this experience to get back on a path of faster improvement in learning. As education systems cope with this crisis, they must also be thinking of how they can recover stronger, with a renewed sense of responsibility of all actors and with a better understanding and sense of urgency of the need to close the gap in opportunities and assuring that all children have the same chances for a quality education.

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Naya Daur