When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic back in March, various government bodies immediately implemented measures within their jurisdictions in an attempt to curb the quickly rising infection rates. Due to the rapid spread and great severity of the novel coronavirus, however, these measures included strict social distancing regulations, community curfews and quarantines, and in badly-hit areas, even complete lockdowns.
Sadly, the seemingly omnipresent threat of the pandemic as well as the lockdowns implemented have greatly affected not only the economy and the healthcare sector but also the education sector. And with the new school year just starting, we’re now seeing the full effects of COVID-19 on the education systems of countries around the world.
Although most schools chose to close once the virus first broke out, it was clear that doing so would be unsustainable. With the advice of the government’s department of education, administrators had to decide one of three things:
A lot of schools opted for the third option, and teachers and students alike were forced to look for alternatives on how they could continue classes as normal. Other sectors such as manufacturing, IT, and publishing, also had to adjust to provide the new market with their demands and needs, such as new internet connections and new teaching materials or workbooks.
This opened up a discussion on the state of education across various countries almost immediately. Although there was already a steady increase in online learning opportunities prior to COVID-19, its importance, as well as convenience, was further highlighted due to the new circumstances. After all, one of the most recommended precautionary measures by the government against the virus was social distancing. Thus, the option for online learning meant that students could still continue their education safely in their own homes, despite the current measures in place.
Working towards the new normal, countries are now slowly starting to shift to virtual learning and related technological improvements. One example is the United States, where the Gates Foundation partnered with New York City, known for having the largest public school system in the entire country, in order to “reimagine education.” The partnership involved ensuring “equitable access to education” and using modern technology to replace the traditional way of studying in a brick-and-mortar classroom.
Even before the pandemic occurred, there was already a structural inequality in the education systems of many countries. The global coronavirus outbreak, however, only further emphasized these issues.
One of the things highlighted by the new online learning setup is the unequal access to education, especially in countries with lower socioeconomic status populations. Out-of-school children, refugee and migrant children, children with disabilities, and even girls have also traditionally been excluded in many education policies and practices.
Additionally, while virtual education seems like the most obvious educational response during the pandemic, it has increasingly become apparent that this may not always be effective for all sectors in society. The gaps in access to technological resources, such as high-bandwidth internet connection and devices with wireless features, show that not everyone can keep up with online learning.
Marginalized students who already live with less are now expected to adapt to online learning like their more privileged peers, something that is evidently not always possible.
“The pandemic is casting a harsh light on issues of privilege and equity, and we’ll see many marginalized students disappear from the system without considerable effort to provide them with extra support,” Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc said in his take of how universities should adapt to online learning.
Since most workplaces have shifted to work-from-home setups and most schools are closed, work-based education such as internships and company studies have been suspended. Although these are externally insinuated circumstances and will likely not completely prevent students from getting accepted into jobs in the future, it’s not hard to imagine that employers may still prefer those who were able to complete theirs than those who did not.
With schools in 192 countries closing due to government-implemented lockdowns by the start of April, the number of affected learners from pre-primary up to tertiary peaked at more than 1.71 billion. This makes up over 91.2% of the total enrolled learners worldwide.
While some countries proceeded to conduct their classes online almost immediately, others have closed schools temporarily to determine longer-term education plans. Most governments provided administrators with three main options for continuing classes.
Over six months after WHO’s announcement, some countries have managed to ease their local infection enough to resume on-site learning.
One of these countries is Thailand. After more than 70 days of not recording even a single case of local infection, the Office of Basic Education Commission (OBEC) instructed schools across the country to resume in-person teaching starting on August 13. With social distancing guidelines, mask-wearing policies, and strict contact tracing, schools have now assumed a new normal in Thailand.
Japan, on the other hand, had an earlier resumption of classes. When the government lifted the state of emergency in 39 of the country’s 47 prefectures, schools in these prefectures started reopening to resume normal classes on May 18. In Tokyo, almost a month after, classes started resuming, with health reports that students needed to submit to their teachers upon arrival.
In China, where the coronavirus first broke out, the government utilized its authoritarian nature in strictly implementing the protocols to avoid outbreaks in schools. Although there are still a few cases here and there, roughly 195 million students in the country are now back to on-site learning. With medical personnel checking temperatures and administrative officials confirming the students’ travel reports and test results and making sure protocols are observed, the government, for the larger part, has been able to keep the virus in control.
Similarly, many other governments are taking advantage of the academic breaks to determine policies that can mitigate, if not totally reduce, the spread of the virus so that schools can reopen safely. That’s why countries such as Italy, Hungary, Turkmenistan, and Ireland are able to open schools fully.
Sadly, many countries still have high reports of coronavirus infections, which makes it impossible to reopen schools. In these countries, different methods of remote learning have to be employed, such as remote learning.
In Mexico, school lessons have resumed, but not in traditional schools. Classes are being broadcasted on TV, with schedules based on public school curriculums prior to the pandemic. This is because 93% of homes in Mexico has access to television, compared to only half of the population that have access to the internet.
Meanwhile, in Nepal, an educational radio program was launched to teach learners remotely while schools are closed. Nepal’s “unique social environment, social structure, and geographical inconveniences” limit families’ access to mobile phones, televisions, and the internet, said secondary school science teacher, Mahesh Prasad Koirala. “In such circumstances as these, radio education programmes seem to be the most effective solution in a country like Nepal.”
UNESCO, Nepal’s Education Development Directorate, and Prime FM Radio joined forces and launched the pilot episode of Radio Pathsala in the Bagmati Province last May. Teachers provide educational content while students can call-in live to ask questions. Thanks to a collaboration between the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and Nepal’s Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB), the radio lesson initiative now covers 77 districts in seven provinces throughout the country.
Like Mexico and Nepal, other countries that still cannot assure the health and safety of their students have adapted different ways of remote learning. This includes radio and television broadcasting, online learning like official YouTube channels and e-learning platforms, or providing students with e-textbooks.
As mentioned above, most countries opted to impose national lockdowns and close schools to drastically limit the number of people going out and possibly getting infected. These countries only reopened once they determined that the spread was more controlled and traceable.
That said, there are still some countries that never closed schools entirely and chose instead to continue with enhanced preparedness and mitigation measures.
In Germany, for example, classes are kept running, and only close contacts of an infected person are recommended to get quarantined. Students are only expected to wear masks in hallways and bathrooms but can take them off inside the classroom since the desks are distantly spaced.
Belarus, on the other hand, extended their spring break to two weeks instead of one, but otherwise kept their schools open. Parents were, however, given the option not to send their children to school physically if they think their safety and health are at risk.
This is understandable, as a freeze on education could be damaging to any country’s confidence and economy in the longer term. But countries are taking the necessary steps to adapt and eventually recover. Governments have adjusted their education systems to cope first with the pandemic, slowly easing the system back to recovery and normality.
COVID-19 has certainly dealt a huge blow to the world. But like with all other sectors of the society affected by the pandemic, education systems are coping with the current circumstances or already adapting to the new normal.
Under these new circumstances, the gaps in education systems around the globe have been highlighted and emphasized. More than ever, we now need to work towards a more inclusive, more equitable, and more resilient education system.