The Education Crisis behind COVID-19

Research could help governments educate an entire generation of students forced out of the classroom.

The threat of COVID-19 on our global healthcare system is unprecedented, but the coronavirus is also precipitating a global education crisis that risks stalling the development of an entire generation.

Although evidence shows that the risks COVID-19 poses to young children appear to be milder than adults, the virus is still affecting child development by disrupting the education of the vast majority of youth around the world. UNICEF has reported that more than 90 percent of learners worldwide, some 1.6 billion youth, are or have been at one point during the pandemic, out of the classrooms as the result of the temporary closure of schools by countries.

The impact of that disruption has been mitigated in developed countries through distance learning and online tools, but the impact it has on developing countries, many of whom lack the infrastructure to support bringing a classroom home, is troubling.

Global TIES for Children, an international research center based at NYUAD and NYU NY,  works on bridging the gap between research, policy and practice in education and human development. They aim to improve child and youth development by bringing science to programs and policies in low-income and conflict affected countries.

Partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments, Global TIES is working in several countries to bring perspectives of research to the policy-making table, particularly in areas on how to measure human development and how to maximize developmental potential for some of the most vulnerable children and youth around the globe.

In the face of COVID-19, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, co-director of Global TIES, believes utilizing research and science in decision-making could partly remedy the absence of learning in many low- and middle-income countries. The Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education said that the already underlying issue of inequitable  education in these countries is being exasperated during the pandemic.

Directors of Global TIES, Larry Aber (left) and Hirokazu Yoshikawa (right).

“We believe that research can make a difference and that NGOs and governments are increasingly looking for research that might be either on the measurement side but might be also on the impact evaluation side and answering this question that policymakers often have of what works in education,” he said.

Households in underdeveloped countries lack access to the technology that might allow students to engage in distance learning. He said that many households around the world don’t have access to a television, let alone a computer connected to the internet.

In lieu of reliable access to an internet-connected computer, he said countries need to assess population accessibility to technology, either through radio or in some contexts, cellphones, to begin implementing a distance learning education plan. As the pandemic progresses and the challenges to education in these times abounds, we are seeing many countries doing just that. 

This plan should also provide for social and emotional learning, the kind that comes from social interactions at school and meaningful relationships at such a formational period in an individual’s life. Larry Aber, co-director of Global TIES and Willner Family Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, said the social-emotional aspect of education is integral in allowing students to develop cooperative skills, their ability for self-regulation, and their perspective-taking aptitude. Global TIES’ work focuses strongly on the importance and impact of social-emotional learning for children in low and middle income countries and conflict affected areas. 

Governments are looking for research that can show them what to do to ensure that their young populations are nurtured, raised and educated in a way that would equip them with the tools to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives.

“It's an enormous challenge because these have generally not been implemented at national scale under these kinds of unprecedented system-wide shutdown conditions covering entire countries and now upwards of 170 or more countries around the world,” Yoshikawa said.

Even before the social distance measures of COVID-19, Global TIES was looking at this unique aspect to education that is often missing in many educational systems that are so often rife with rote learning.

In a partnership with the LEGO and MacArthur foundations, BRAC, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop, Global TIES  is working on a set of initiatives that will produce play-based programming for children in the Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh, where some 900,000 Rohingya refugees reside as well as a parallel program which focuses on Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

“Learning should not be about sitting in rows listening to a teacher and memorizing vocabulary or math and arithmetic and those kinds of things. Each of the major skills in the areas of language and maths can be built through interactive pedagogy as well as programming that youth are interested in,” Yoshikawa said. 

With so many children out of school, Yoshikawa says it is equally important during the pandemic to engage with parents and caregivers to build the idea of home-based learning. The challenge is that without direct one-on-one contact with caregivers, engagement will have to be through text-messaging, radio or TV and the impact of that kind of communication is still unknown.

Currently, Global TIES is working to continue pushing out research to help decision making during these times. But it is also working to broker relationships between NGOs and governments to identify areas of collaboration.

During these unprecedented times, Global TIES is harnessing their vast knowledge of the science of child development and their experience in conducting research in crisis-affected contexts globally to respond to the pandemic and aftermath in concrete ways. 

The organization is generating evidence to inform early childhood and education responses in low- and middle-income countries during the pandemic and its aftermath. Additionally, Global TIES is advising governments and non-governmental organizations on existing evidence-based strategies for promoting children’s health, learning, and well-being in crisis contexts. 

Finally, highlighting the risks to, needs of, and the opportunities to support children, caregivers, and teachers during the pandemic and the aftermath and collaborating in global efforts to collate measures and methods to generate COVID-related research about meeting the needs of children.