As of March 23, more than 124 countries have closed their education systems either in full or in specific regions, and closures now affect more than 1.25 billion learners worldwide. As Fernando Reimers and his collaborators note in their book Letters to A New Minister of Education, your job as an education minister is now to “make sense of the mess”—to turn a series of interrelated challenges into a series of organized and prioritized problems and then into a strategy for action.
The COVID-19 “mess” for education is a unique one. We have limited information about the likely path of the pandemic. Ministers, educators, communities, families, and learners will all have to make decisions in a context of “radical uncertainty.” To assist decision-making during the pandemic, we highlight six things that you as a minister of education should consider as you plan.
1. Prepare for the situation to last for weeks and months
In countries at the European epicenter, and in many developing countries where the virus is only starting to spread or where public health systems are weak, schools and higher education institutions are likely to be closed for a considerable period. Although many school systems announced initial closures of 2-4 weeks, recent announcements in the United States and in Canada, for example, suggest closures may last upwards of three months.
And because transmission of the virus is both new and global, its pathway is hard to predict. Education ministers are going to have to plan not only for an indefinite period of school closure, but also for the potential that either some or all schools may have to close again in a second wave of the virus.
2. Adapt your plan, but stick to your key goals and principles
The Building State Capability program at Harvard highlights common characteristics of successful leadership in contexts of crisis.
First, and foremost: even though you cannot stick to your existing plans, it would be wise to keep a steady focus on your mission, goals, and principles. Your government has a mandate both to protect children and to ensure that they learn. You have principles, goals, and targets for your education system. These have not changed, even if they need to be modified.
Second: focus on things that are within your control, and make sure education has space within the government’s crisis planning. While you won’t be able to deliver your planned policies and interventions in the coming period, senior education leaders during past crises suggest that you need to ask carefully: What you can do, now, in this context, with your resources, to keep your country moving towards these goals? Who can help you to do this? How can you unlock the capacity of your staff, communities, and partners to keep education moving?
Remember that while ministries of education have many fixed costs during school and university closures, there may be staff, equipment, and materials that can be redeployed; and myriad donors, partners, and stakeholders that can be called on to help fill gaps.
3. Protect your people
A first principle in crisis management is to protect your people, especially the most vulnerable. COVID-19 presents a number of new challenges compared to other kinds of emergencies. Most importantly, because it is highly contagious, COVID-19 requires “social distancing,” which prohibits traditional forms of face-to-face coordination and service delivery. However, while there are new challenges, many of the issues you should consider have been well described in many different guidelines related to education in emergencies provided by INEE, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, and condensed into this simplified guidance by Harvard. You will also have learned lessons from past crises. For now, just a few points to keep in mind:
Address the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth. As seen in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, school closures mean the loss of protection for those most vulnerable, including girls. Children with special needs often receive specialist care in school settings. Even in the richer countries, schools provide social services that are difficult to replace—in Los Angeles for example, a majority of children rely on school meal programs; in New York, homeless children rely on schools for bathing and laundry.
Replace essential services. You can start by thinking about how you might replace these essential protective services—for example, can you switch from school meals to take-home rations, or cash transfers? Can schools remain open for specific services, as is the case in recent UK guidance? Can they be used as crisis hubs for the community? Think now about seeding plans for bringing those most likely to drop out back into school. For girls in particular, what kind of communication and protection can be provided?
District leaders, school heads, and teachers often have detailed information about the needs of children and families in their communities—you may be able to call on them for advice to ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected and return to school. Consider asking them to staff phone lines, text community members, or engage local media to support the psycho-social needs of children.
Duty of care to your employees. Ministries of education are typically among the largest employers in their countries’ public sector or even entire economy. What will you do to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of your staff during the crisis? How will you protect the welfare of contract teachers and others in the education workforce? UNICEF has issued guidance that provides a checklist with detailed information about how to preserve the safety of teachers and school leaders when calling them into active service.
The tricky question of exams. Many education systems are organized around high-stakes examinations and credentialing. Such exams heighten stress among learners, and are risky during COVID-19 because they rely on face-to-face proctoring. Exams across West Africa were cancelled last week in response to the pandemic. This is an anxious time for students, who have been required to vacate schools and do not know when or if they might return to earn their leaving credentials. A protective response is to allow for automatic promotion (in K-12 education) while ensuring earmarked places and remediation for disadvantaged populations in future admissions processes.
4. Keep learning going
How to keep children learning is a challenge facing education leaders globally. Even in high-resource systems, the use of online technological platforms for teaching is in its infancy. We will see many experiments in coming months. No doubt some will be successful, but there will likely be many failures.
Minister, you may want to be wary of the rapid, aggressive upswing in marketing of educational software by commercial vendors—as is presently happening in the United States. What’s important is to focus on what you already have that can support structured distance learning in your context. It will be important to remember that technological solutions often exacerbate existing inequalities. And even the best solutions require careful attention to the crucial interface between technology, teacher, and child.
Low-tech solutions are often more viable in low-resource contexts. One option is to send reading and writing materials home with children, combined with supporting daily reading practice through radio broadcasts. Modules offered by radio broadcast have been used effectively in many countries (see Kenya for an early example of a program responding to COVID-19). Teachers and upper-level students can be called on to act as virtual tutors using simple SMS platforms to enhance the effectiveness of online and broadcast programs. Parents and siblings can also support simple learning exercises (for example UNICEF’s “child-to-child” programs). However, research suggests that relying on parents will not be enough; getting your teachers and school heads involved in (virtual) delivery will be essential.
5. Communicate, motivate, and engage
For learners, educators, their families, and communities, the loss of schooling erodes the social glue that holds together everyday life. They will want and need information. Scott Cowen, a university president in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, argues, “the importance of actively creating a sense of community beyond living and learning in close proximity cannot be overstated.”
The literature on crisis leadership emphasizes the importance of explaining your situation, plans, hopes, and concerns, openly and often. Harvard’s Matt Andrews suggests a few simple guidelines: be calm, clear, factual, and frank. Explain what you do know—and what you do not. Be human.
Crucially, the public, your staff, and your partners also need to know about your continued commitment to key educational principles and goals. They need to know that you are planning forward, even if there are uncertainties and the specifics are not in view.
Crisis leadership also means listening carefully to your people, to their concerns, and to their ideas and solutions, however small. You could consider setting up channels for listening within your ministry—even to things you may not wish to hear. Everyone from ministerial staff down to district leaders and school heads, teachers, children, and parents has something to contribute, and together they will provide crucial insights to help you plan your response. Appointing a body within your ministry to coordinate these inputs can help.
Published announcements like this circular issued by a Canadian school board or these guidelines released by the Ministry of Education in Kenya are a good start. But frequent, personalized communication is better, especially where a situation is evolving and complex. Many African ministries have extensive WhatsApp groups through which they communicate to school heads and staff. Public broadcasting and social media can help amplify your messages.
Engaging directly with children is an emerging innovation in crisis communications. These dedicated COVID-19 briefings for children recently held by the prime minister of Norway and the prime minister of New Zealand helped show students that their governments care about the effect this pandemic is having on their education.
6. Stay on top of the evidence and learn
Minister, you have a challenging but vital job during this crisis: to protect, plan, motivate, and continue to deliver on your mandate. Learning from what has worked and is working in other jurisdictions will be important, as this will through necessity be a time of great experimentation (see this new UNESCO platform which will bring together education ministers to share experiences). As you learn from the experience of others, also consider how you are learning from this crisis: What evidence can you collect that will help others now and in the future? And, as this recent overview on leadership during the Ebola crisis suggests, listen to, mobilize, and unlock the agency of your own people—they are critical to your success.
This blog has benefited enormously from a recent series by Harvard’s Matt Andrews, in the Building State Capability blog. Generous inputs were also provided by Luis Crouch, Barbara Bruns, Ben Piper, staff at Room to Read, and Professors Scott Davies and Janice Aurini.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.