At the end of February, when alarm bells started ringing to warn of the emerging outbreak of the Corona virus, the World Bank set up a global multi-sectoral working group to support countries responding to this crisis and the measures they are taking to adapt to it. At the time, only China and a few other affected countries imposed social divergence by closing schools. A little more than two weeks later, 120 countries closed schools, affecting nearly a billion students worldwide who saw their schools closed for different time periods.
While school closures seem to be a logical solution to imposing social separation within communities, long-term closings will have a disproportionate negative impact on the most affected students. These students have fewer opportunities to learn at home, and the time spent outside of school may represent economic burdens on their parents who may face challenges in finding care for their children for a long time, or even providing adequate food in the absence of school meals.
The hard-won gains in expanding access to education can also be stopped, and even terminated, with school closures extended, and access to alternative options – such as distance learning – remains out of reach for those without the means to communicate. This may cause more human capital losses and shrinking economic opportunities.
Even more disturbing is the fact that most low-income countries (for example, in sub-Saharan Africa) have not reported many HIV infections (or even any of them) yet. This raises doubts about both service delivery and preparedness. It is unclear what should guide the decision-making process in these countries: must they act proactively despite potential economic repercussions, or wait and see what happens, with the risks involved in this outbreak? The truth is that operating in an anonymous context creates significant risks for all sectors, including the education sector.
China is a country where education has continued, regardless of school closures, with online and distance education. Other countries or school systems were less prepared. Access to technology may differ for most families, and access to broadband Internet services or smartphones is linked to the income level even in middle-income countries. Therefore, programs that can quickly target the people most in need are critical.
In fact, educational interventions during crises can support prevention and a recovery in public health while mitigating the impact of those crises on students and the learning process. When health facilities are scarce, schools can be turned into temporary detention centers during crises. All this must be taken into account in the planning process, especially in the adjustment and recovery stages. It is worth noting that education can contribute to the protection of children and youth. It helps them to adapt or to some extent maintain normalcy during crises, and recover more quickly with the hope of acquiring some useful new skills (i.e. acquiring distance learning skills, and more mastery of digital skills when the need arises). Moreover, in some environments where capacity is low, especially in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, schools are often the only permanent government structure in rural villages and can be used as temporary centers to respond to crises. Teachers, who are often among the most educated in hard-to-reach areas, can also be trained to serve as followers of contact and advocacy campaigners.