The pandemic has had devastating impacts on learning. What will it take to help students catch up?

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, megan kuhfeld , megan kuhfeld senior research scientist - nwea @megankuhfeld jim soland , jim soland assistant professor, school of education and human development - university of virginia, affiliated research fellow - nwea @jsoland karyn lewis , and karyn lewis director, center for school and student progress - nwea @karynlew emily morton emily morton research scientist - nwea @emily_r_morton.

March 3, 2022

As we reach the two-year mark of the initial wave of pandemic-induced school shutdowns, academic normalcy remains out of reach for many students, educators, and parents. In addition to surging COVID-19 cases at the end of 2021, schools have faced severe staff shortages , high rates of absenteeism and quarantines , and rolling school closures . Furthermore, students and educators continue to struggle with mental health challenges , higher rates of violence and misbehavior , and concerns about lost instructional time .

As we outline in our new research study released in January, the cumulative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic achievement has been large. We tracked changes in math and reading test scores across the first two years of the pandemic using data from 5.4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8. We focused on test scores from immediately before the pandemic (fall 2019), following the initial onset (fall 2020), and more than one year into pandemic disruptions (fall 2021).

Average fall 2021 math test scores in grades 3-8 were 0.20-0.27 standard deviations (SDs) lower relative to same-grade peers in fall 2019, while reading test scores were 0.09-0.18 SDs lower. This is a sizable drop. For context, the math drops are significantly larger than estimated impacts from other large-scale school disruptions, such as after Hurricane Katrina—math scores dropped 0.17 SDs in one year for New Orleans evacuees .

Even more concerning, test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math (corresponding to 0.20 SDs) and 15% in reading (0.13 SDs), primarily during the 2020-21 school year. Further, achievement tended to drop more between fall 2020 and 2021 than between fall 2019 and 2020 (both overall and differentially by school poverty), indicating that disruptions to learning have continued to negatively impact students well past the initial hits following the spring 2020 school closures.

These numbers are alarming and potentially demoralizing, especially given the heroic efforts of students to learn and educators to teach in incredibly trying times. From our perspective, these test-score drops in no way indicate that these students represent a “ lost generation ” or that we should give up hope. Most of us have never lived through a pandemic, and there is so much we don’t know about students’ capacity for resiliency in these circumstances and what a timeline for recovery will look like. Nor are we suggesting that teachers are somehow at fault given the achievement drops that occurred between 2020 and 2021; rather, educators had difficult jobs before the pandemic, and now are contending with huge new challenges, many outside their control.

Clearly, however, there’s work to do. School districts and states are currently making important decisions about which interventions and strategies to implement to mitigate the learning declines during the last two years. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) investments from the American Rescue Plan provided nearly $200 billion to public schools to spend on COVID-19-related needs. Of that sum, $22 billion is dedicated specifically to addressing learning loss using “evidence-based interventions” focused on the “ disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups. ” Reviews of district and state spending plans (see Future Ed , EduRecoveryHub , and RAND’s American School District Panel for more details) indicate that districts are spending their ESSER dollars designated for academic recovery on a wide variety of strategies, with summer learning, tutoring, after-school programs, and extended school-day and school-year initiatives rising to the top.

Comparing the negative impacts from learning disruptions to the positive impacts from interventions

To help contextualize the magnitude of the impacts of COVID-19, we situate test-score drops during the pandemic relative to the test-score gains associated with common interventions being employed by districts as part of pandemic recovery efforts. If we assume that such interventions will continue to be as successful in a COVID-19 school environment, can we expect that these strategies will be effective enough to help students catch up? To answer this question, we draw from recent reviews of research on high-dosage tutoring , summer learning programs , reductions in class size , and extending the school day (specifically for literacy instruction) . We report effect sizes for each intervention specific to a grade span and subject wherever possible (e.g., tutoring has been found to have larger effects in elementary math than in reading).

Figure 1 shows the standardized drops in math test scores between students testing in fall 2019 and fall 2021 (separately by elementary and middle school grades) relative to the average effect size of various educational interventions. The average effect size for math tutoring matches or exceeds the average COVID-19 score drop in math. Research on tutoring indicates that it often works best in younger grades, and when provided by a teacher rather than, say, a parent. Further, some of the tutoring programs that produce the biggest effects can be quite intensive (and likely expensive), including having full-time tutors supporting all students (not just those needing remediation) in one-on-one settings during the school day. Meanwhile, the average effect of reducing class size is negative but not significant, with high variability in the impact across different studies. Summer programs in math have been found to be effective (average effect size of .10 SDs), though these programs in isolation likely would not eliminate the COVID-19 test-score drops.

Figure 1: Math COVID-19 test-score drops compared to the effect sizes of various educational interventions

Figure 1 – Math COVID-19 test-score drops compared to the effect sizes of various educational interventions

Source: COVID-19 score drops are pulled from Kuhfeld et al. (2022) Table 5; reduction-in-class-size results are from pg. 10 of Figles et al. (2018) Table 2; summer program results are pulled from Lynch et al (2021) Table 2; and tutoring estimates are pulled from Nictow et al (2020) Table 3B. Ninety-five percent confidence intervals are shown with vertical lines on each bar.

Notes: Kuhfeld et al. and Nictow et al. reported effect sizes separately by grade span; Figles et al. and Lynch et al. report an overall effect size across elementary and middle grades. We were unable to find a rigorous study that reported effect sizes for extending the school day/year on math performance. Nictow et al. and Kraft & Falken (2021) also note large variations in tutoring effects depending on the type of tutor, with larger effects for teacher and paraprofessional tutoring programs than for nonprofessional and parent tutoring. Class-size reductions included in the Figles meta-analysis ranged from a minimum of one to minimum of eight students per class.

Figure 2 displays a similar comparison using effect sizes from reading interventions. The average effect of tutoring programs on reading achievement is larger than the effects found for the other interventions, though summer reading programs and class size reduction both produced average effect sizes in the ballpark of the COVID-19 reading score drops.

Figure 2: Reading COVID-19 test-score drops compared to the effect sizes of various educational interventions

Figure 2 – Reading COVID-19 test-score drops compared to the effect sizes of various educational interventions

Source: COVID-19 score drops are pulled from Kuhfeld et al. (2022) Table 5; extended-school-day results are from Figlio et al. (2018) Table 2; reduction-in-class-size results are from pg. 10 of Figles et al. (2018) ; summer program results are pulled from Kim & Quinn (2013) Table 3; and tutoring estimates are pulled from Nictow et al (2020) Table 3B. Ninety-five percent confidence intervals are shown with vertical lines on each bar.

Notes: While Kuhfeld et al. and Nictow et al. reported effect sizes separately by grade span, Figlio et al. and Kim & Quinn report an overall effect size across elementary and middle grades. Class-size reductions included in the Figles meta-analysis ranged from a minimum of one to minimum of eight students per class.

There are some limitations of drawing on research conducted prior to the pandemic to understand our ability to address the COVID-19 test-score drops. First, these studies were conducted under conditions that are very different from what schools currently face, and it is an open question whether the effectiveness of these interventions during the pandemic will be as consistent as they were before the pandemic. Second, we have little evidence and guidance about the efficacy of these interventions at the unprecedented scale that they are now being considered. For example, many school districts are expanding summer learning programs, but school districts have struggled to find staff interested in teaching summer school to meet the increased demand. Finally, given the widening test-score gaps between low- and high-poverty schools, it’s uncertain whether these interventions can actually combat the range of new challenges educators are facing in order to narrow these gaps. That is, students could catch up overall, yet the pandemic might still have lasting, negative effects on educational equality in this country.

Given that the current initiatives are unlikely to be implemented consistently across (and sometimes within) districts, timely feedback on the effects of initiatives and any needed adjustments will be crucial to districts’ success. The Road to COVID Recovery project and the National Student Support Accelerator are two such large-scale evaluation studies that aim to produce this type of evidence while providing resources for districts to track and evaluate their own programming. Additionally, a growing number of resources have been produced with recommendations on how to best implement recovery programs, including scaling up tutoring , summer learning programs , and expanded learning time .

Ultimately, there is much work to be done, and the challenges for students, educators, and parents are considerable. But this may be a moment when decades of educational reform, intervention, and research pay off. Relying on what we have learned could show the way forward.

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COVID-19 cases in schools and child care centres

Learn about coronavirus (COVID‑19) cases in Ontario schools from September 5, 2020 to June 30, 2021. See up-to-date information about COVID‑19 cases in schools and COVID‑19 cases in licensed child care settings .

Download the raw data from the Ontario Data Catalogue

Learn what to expect for the 2020-2021 school year

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Please note that this page is only provided for archival purposes.

We will continue to publish child care data on regular business days for child care programs that are permitted to operate under current provincial government direction. Learn about COVID‑19 cases in licensed child care settings .

Summary of cases in schools

This report provides a summary of COVID‑19 activity in publicly-funded Ontario schools. Cumulative totals represent all total cases reported to the Ministry of Education as of September 5, 2020, including resolved cases.

Cases reported on this page on Tuesdays include the total number of cases reported from Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon. School boards report to us every weekday from Monday to Friday.

Last updated: July 5 at 10:30 a.m.

  • In some instances, the type of case has not been identified as either student/child or staff/provider/partner due to privacy considerations. These "individuals" only include unidentified students/children or staff/providers/partners and not visitors or parents. These cases will be tracked as "individuals" but not included in the "student/child" or "staff/provider" columns.
  • Recommended isolation period for COVID‑19 cases is 14 days.
  • This report includes individual school closures that are due to outbreaks or operational considerations. It does not include regional closures in a local public health unit area.

Data updates as of July 5:

  • 120 student cases
  • 140 staff cases
  • 0 individuals not identified

Find data about:

COVID‑19 asymptomatic targeted testing in schools

Schools with recent COVID-19 cases

This report lists schools and school boards that have reported recent cases of COVID‑19 in the past 14 days.

Note: In some instances, the type of case has not been identified as either student/child or staff/provider/partner due to privacy considerations. These "individuals" only include unidentified students/children or staff/providers/partners and not visitors or parents. These cases will be tracked as "individuals" but not included in the "student/child" or "staff/provider" columns.

Note: Cases listed at board office sites include occasional school staff (for example, occasional teachers, occasional early childhood educators and occasional educational assistants), board staff who visit schools (for example, social workers, psychologists and resource teachers or staff) and centrally or regionally assigned school board staff.

Cases in school board partners

This report lists confirmed recent COVID‑19 cases in school board partners (for example: school bus drivers, health professionals). If cases overlap across various school boards, school boards will be listed together so cases are not counted more than once.

Where the numbers come from

Every day, schools, child care centres and licensed home child care agencies report to the Ministry of Education on children, students and staff that have positive cases of COVID‑19.

If there is a discrepancy between numbers reported here and those reported publicly by a Public Health Unit, please consider the number reported by the Public Health Unit to be the most up-to-date.

Schools and school boards report when a school is closed to the Ministry of Education. Data is current as of 2:00 pm the previous day.

If a COVID-19 case is confirmed at your school

The local public health unit will determine what happens if a COVID‑19 case is confirmed at your school.

Check for notices on the school or board website

School boards and schools will post a notice on their website if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID‑19. Search for a COVID‑19 advisory section on their website.

No personal information will be posted.

Working with public health

Schools will work with public health units to help them identify who has been in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID‑19.

This means that a school may provide the public health unit with your child’s name and information about their:

  • class cohort
  • school bus cohort
  • child care cohort

Schools will provide information in accordance with all applicable legislation, including the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

If there is risk of exposure

The public health unit will assess risk of exposure. Those at high risk will need to isolate for 14 days.

If your child was in close contact with a person who tested positive, the public health unit will tell you that your child must isolate for 14 days. They’ll also tell you if your child or family need to get tested for COVID‑19.

If your child is feeling well enough, the school will give your child remote learning activities they can do at home during their 14-day isolation period.

Not everyone may have been exposed

Since students will be grouped in class cohorts, the public health unit may determine that your child has not been in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID‑19 from another class or part of the school.

The public health unit will advise you to monitor your child for symptoms, but your child will be able to keep going to school as long as they are not ill and the school is open.

Closing classes or schools

If the local public health unit declares an outbreak, they will determine what happens next. This could include closing classrooms, cohorts or an entire school.

If an outbreak is declared in a school, the public health unit will help determine which groups of students need to be sent home or if a partial or full school closure is required.

Declaring an outbreak

An outbreak may be declared by the local public health unit when:

  • within a 14-day period, there are two or more laboratory-confirmed COVID‑19 cases in students, staff or other visitors with an epidemiological link (for example, if cases are in the same class or cohort)
  • at least one case could have been infected in the school (including on a school bus or in before or after school care)

What your local public health unit will do

If an outbreak exists, the local public health unit is responsible for:

  • declaring an outbreak
  • providing direction on how to control the outbreak
  • declaring when an outbreak is over

The local public health unit is responsible for determining:

  • if an outbreak exists
  • how to manage the outbreak in collaboration with the school and other relevant partners, such as before and after school programs
  • who to test, in alignment with the province’s broader testing strategy
  • who is at high-risk of infection and needs to self-isolate
  • if a partial or full school closure is required

COVID‑19: reopening schools

Ontario to stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards, suspend reporting of cases

The Ontario government will stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards and suspend reporting of new coronavirus infections among students and staff starting next week.

The change was detailed in a memo from the Ministry of Education sent to school board officials on Thursday, the same day the province announced that it was delaying the return to in-person classes for two days – from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5.

"Given recent changes to case and contact management by the Ministry of Health and OCMOH (Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health), the ministry will suspend reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools," the memo obtained by CP24 read.

While case counts will no longer be posted, the ministry said it will continue to report school and child-care closures due to COVID-19.

"Further information will be shared shortly with school boards on reporting expectations of absences in schools and school closures due to COVID-19, in conjunction with educational and pediatric leaders," the memo read.

The new policy was not part of Thursday's back-to-school announcement made by Ontario's chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore.

In a letter to parents Friday, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) confirmed that the Ministry of Education "will no longer be collecting COVID-19 case numbers from school boards."

"The TDSB, which is committed to keeping families as informed as possible, is currently reviewing how reporting and notification may happen moving forward."

Ontario has been reporting COVID-19 cases in schools for the last 18 months. Between Aug. 2 and Dec. 24 of 2021, 12,062 COVID-19 school-related cases were reported, according to the provincial reporting website. Of those, 10,582 infections were among students.

Also, in the memo, the ministry said the dismissal classes and cohorts may no longer be needed even after a positive case is confirmed. Students and staff experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or are confirmed cases are still expected to self-isolate regardless of vaccination status.

The ministry also laid out in the memo steps on how school boards can minimize school closures due to operational reasons related to "high rates of expected absenteeism" among staff.

One of the steps is allowing school boards to "combine classes and assign students to different classes to ensure supervision."

Schools can also introduce "rotating, planned remote learning days for schools if needed, up to one day per week," the memo read.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended his government's approach earlier on Friday, saying they have put an increased focus on improved ventilation and masking.

"Schools are literally some of the safest places in our community because we have distancing, cohorting, screening at the front-end quality masking, ventilation improvements and access to take home PCR tests for symptomatic students and staff. It's going to make a difference and I appreciate that we all have an angst about the Omicron variant because we all want this to be behind us. But by increasing our immunization efforts, by wearing quality masks and by continuing to be vigilant as a society, I think we will get through the next few weeks," he said in an interview with CP24.

"They will be tough, but it's worth the effort to get our kids in school, to keep them safe and to keep them learning."

The Opposition called the move "terrifying" and slammed Premier Doug Ford for "trying to hide the damage, and the danger of his choices."

"Ford's attempt to cover up COVID numbers in schools is going to hurt kids, families, teachers and education workers," NDP Education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement.

"Parents have to decide to send their kids to school not knowing if the school has a high number of COVID cases. If we can't track where the virus is, we can't fight it. Ford is treating students and staff like pawns in his attempt to hide rising COVID numbers."

- with files from Chris Fox and Chris Herhalt

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Ontario will stop reporting COVID-19 cases in schools and child-care settings, memos from the Ministry of Education say, prompting criticism from the opposition New Democratic Party, which called the move "terrifying for parents."

In memos sent to school boards and child-care licensees dated Dec. 30, the ministry said it is implementing new health and safety measures in schools and child-care facilities, citing recent changes to its case and contact management strategy. The memos were shared in a news release by the NDP on Friday.

On Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore announced that the province is shortening isolation requirements , limiting testing to high-risk groups and reopening schools next Wednesday, Jan 5. , rather than Monday. Child-care programs, however, will be permitted to operate beginning Jan. 3.

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In a statement issued Friday, the Ontario NDP called on the provincial government to reverse testing and tracing cuts.

"If we can't track where the virus is, we can't fight it," education critic Marit Stiles said.

Here's the relevant section of the memo to school boards related to schools. <a href="https://t.co/ayjCfV6KUX">pic.twitter.com/ayjCfV6KUX</a> &mdash; @maritstiles

"Doug Ford is leaving our littlest kids unprotected, and even going so far as to stop testing and reporting — he's trying to hide the damage, and the danger of his choices," said child-care critic Bhutila Karpoche.

"How are parents supposed to make decisions to keep their kids safe?"

Asked Thursday if the move to limit testing to high-risk individuals was a political one, Moore pushed back, saying the province would test everyone if it had the capacity. 

"We have to pivot, we know there's ongoing community activity, we know we'll have transmission risk, that data has to focus to screen those who need treatment and to protect those in high-risk settings," Moore told reporters at Thursday's media conference. 

The NDP's statement also notes that children under five cannot be vaccinated and that many child-care centres have been using negative PCR tests to allow a child to return after symptoms.

In a statement, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) confirmed the Ministry of Education will no longer be collecting COVID-19 case numbers from school boards.

The TDSB said it's reviewing how reporting and notification of cases will occur moving forward.

ministry of education reporting covid cases

Province preparing for surge

In an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday, Moore said that the province's new metric for monitoring the spread of Omicron will be "how well our hospitals can continue to provide care" and not necessarily daily case counts.

He noted again that the province is preparing for a surge in the coming weeks.

"We're monitoring the admissions to hospital and the ICU numbers around the clock to ensure we have capacity," Moore said.

LISTEN | Ontario's Dr. Kieran Moore explains province's plan for testing, schools:

While the Ministry of Health will suspend reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools and child care, the memos say it will still accept submissions of serious occurrences of confirmed cases of the virus from schools and child-care facilities. Elementary and secondary students and staff who are symptomatic are eligible for PCR tests if they receive a self-collection kit through their schools.

Moore said absenteeism will be the main indicator for the spread.

"Given that Omicron is so rapidly spreading, we're basically reporting on what proportion of students are absent at any given time to allow public health to concentrate on those high-risk settings," he said.

'All of this is avoidable'

Moore had also advised the education and child-care sectors to plan for potentially higher than normal absenteeism in the coming weeks, with widespread community transmission of Omicron expected.

With the latest announcements on schools and child care, infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said he feels "abandoned" by the province.

"We're in for a really rough ride for the next few weeks," he told  Metro Morning on Friday. "I feel that kids and teachers have been abandoned. We're set up to be mass infected over the next several days, and we don't have the health supports in order to be able to deal with that."

"All of this is avoidable, so I'm feeling pretty unhappy," Furness said. 

"We could have built up the testing capacity. There's no question we could have. We made a conscious decision as a province not to do that. We've had 20 months. The technologies are there. We decided not to."

ministry of education reporting covid cases

Furness has now written a letter to Toronto Public Health and Peel Public Health asking them to delay school openings for 13 school days. He believes that's enough time to get through the Omicron wave and vaccinate more staff and children.

"There's no question that we are going to see much of the population in Ontario exposed, from infants all the way to long-term care home residents and our health system can't cope with that," he said.

In an email to CBC News, Toronto Public Health did not confirm receipt of the letter, but said it was reviewing the provincial announcement and will provide updates to the public when details are confirmed.

Peel Public Health confirmed receipt of Furness's letter but said no additional local measures are under consideration.

Education minister has not spoken publicly

In his interview on Metro Morning, Moore said he believed Minister of Education Stephen Lecce would speak publicly Friday about school reopenings. CBC News has made repeated attempts to contact the minister of education and received a response on Friday night.

In an email statement, Ministry of Education spokesperson Caitlin Clark said it is following Ministry of Health requirements.

"As per the new Ministry of Health requirement, no sector will have access to the accurate case data, including in the education sector, which is required in order to report COVID-19 cases in schools and child-care settings," Clark wrote.

"We will continue to report school and child-care closures and will be providing school boards with updated operational guidance on reporting expectations of absences and closures."

The ministry also reiterated Moore's comments on focusing on high-risk Ontarians as part of the province's pivot in strategy.

The ministry of education has announced it will provide children in schools and child care with three-ply cloth masks to encourage use of a higher quality mask, while staff will have the option for a non-fit-tested N95 mask.

The province says anyone with symptoms suggesting COVID-19 must self-isolate, regardless of vaccination status. However, that isolation period has been reduced to five days, and applies to everyone in the household.

Specific instructions for schools and child care are: if a child or staff member is experiencing one symptom associated with COVID-19, or two or more symptoms less commonly associated with COVID-19, they must self-isolate.

  • Ontario's new pandemic strategy risks 'out of control' transmission, epidemiologists warn
  • Ontario reports 16,713 COVID-19 cases on New Year's Eve as hospitalizations climb

Schools and child-care programs qualify for rapid antigen tests and the ministry of education said it will expand access to them. It's also deploying 5,000 standalone HEPA filter units, it said in its memo Friday. 

According to the memo, "all schools are required to reinstate daily on-site confirmation of screening for all students and staff until further notice."

In the event of staff shortages, child-care facilities are asked to assign staff and children to different groups to accommodate staffing needs.

Medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital Dr. Michael Warner agrees with Furness regarding the need to wait to reopen schools. 

Delaying return to school by 1-2 weeks buys us time to make it safer. <a href="https://t.co/sef9B2Hb1Q">pic.twitter.com/sef9B2Hb1Q</a> &mdash; @drmwarner

In a video posted on Twitter, Warner says a one-to-two week delay in reopening schools and child care can help prioritize boosters for education staff.

"Their environment is no less risky than mine," he said. "In one or two weeks the peak may be past us."

With files from Metro Morning

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COVID-19–Related School Closures and Learning Modality Changes — United States, August 1–September 17, 2021

Weekly / October 1, 2021 / 70(39);1374–1376

On September 24, 2021, this report was posted online as an MMWR Early Release.

Sharyn E. Parks, PhD 1 ; Nicole Zviedrite, MPH 1 ; Samantha E. Budzyn, MPH 1 ,2 ; Mark J. Panaggio, PhD 3 ; Emma Raible 3 ; Marc Papazian 4 ; Jake Magid, MEng 4 ; Faruque Ahmed, PhD 1 ; Amra Uzicanin, MD 1 ; Lisa C. Barrios, DrPH 1 ( View author affiliations )

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Beginning in January 2021, the U.S. government prioritized ensuring continuity of learning for all students during the COVID-19 pandemic ( 1 ). To estimate the extent of COVID-19–associated school disruptions, CDC and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory used a Hidden Markov Model (HMM) ( 2 ) statistical approach to estimate the most likely actual learning modality based on patterns observed in past data, accounting for conflicting or missing information and systematic Internet searches ( 3 ) for COVID-19–related school closures. This information was used to assess how many U.S. schools were open, and in which learning modalities, during August 1–September 17, 2021. Learning modalities included 1) full in-person learning, 2) a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and 3) full remote learning.

Multiple data sources were combined to estimate the learning modality for public and public charter school districts in the United States using HMM; sources included Burbio,* MCH Strategic Data, † American Enterprise Institute–Return to Learn, § and state dashboards. ¶ Weekly learning modalities (full in-person, hybrid, and full remote) during August 1, 2020–July 31, 2021 were used to select the optimal weights for each reported modality in order to infer the most likely actual learning modality. The trained HMM was applied weekly during August 1–September 17, 2021. In addition to using HMM, since February 2020, CDC has also tracked district and individual public and private school closures attributed to COVID-19 and estimated the number of students and teachers affected by these closures. School closure data were obtained via daily systematic Internet searches, as described previously ( 3 ), which identified publicly announced COVID-19–related closures lasting ≥1 day. School or district closure was defined as a transition from being open to being closed for in-person instruction. Fully in-person and hybrid (i.e., latter includes both in-person and remote) learning modalities were classified as open; fully remote learning modalities (if stated as offered during closure) were classified as closed. Closure dates and reasons were recorded and linked to publicly available education data.** HMM was fitted using the Pomegranate module (version 0.14.3) for Python (version 3.7.6). COVID-SC data were imported into SAS (version 9.4; SAS Institute) for analysis. These activities were reviewed by CDC and were conducted consistent with applicable federal law and CDC policy. ††

For the week ending September 17, 2021, HMM data were available for 73% of kindergarten through grade 12 public school students in 8,700 districts nationwide and varied by state (Supplementary Figure, https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/109969 ). Among these districts, 8,343 (96%) were offering full in-person learning, 322 (4%) were offering hybrid learning, and 35 (0.4%) were offering full remote learning. The largest number of districts with full remote learning (14) were in the West Census Region, followed by the South (11). Seven Midwest and two Northeast districts offered full remote learning. During August 2–September 17, 2021, systematic Internet searches identified announcements of 248 public districtwide closures and 384 individual school closures for ≥1 day attributable to COVID-19. Closures affected 1,801 schools (1.5% of all schools), 933,913 students, and 59,846 teachers in 44 states ( Figure ). The number of closures was highest in the South.

The findings in this report are subject to at least five limitations. First, both HMM and daily Internet searches were informed by passive collection of available information obtained through school and district surveys, public-facing website pages, and media reports; therefore, they are likely not inclusive of all school districts nationwide. Second, HMM did not account for the possibility of serial errors in sources (i.e., sources that are incorrect week after week). Third, districts included in HMM were larger than those excluded, thus limiting generalizability. Fourth, HMM is based on the assumption that probabilities for subsequent weeks are determined exclusively by the modality for the current week with no change in these probabilities over time or from district to district, both of which might not always be true. The results do not speak directly to level of impact because districts and schools may have different thresholds for closure or change in modality. Finally, regional differences must be interpreted cautiously. The timing of return to school likely accounts for some regional variation in school closures because longer in-session time increases opportunities for COVID-19 cases to appear in schools. Many districts in the South returned to school in early August compared with late August or early September return dates in other regions ( 4 ).

Federal public health and education agencies are using HMM model information and systematic Internet searches to identify districts and schools most affected by COVID-19–related disruptions. Examination of prevention activities in those with and without disruption can suggest modifications to COVID-19 prevention activities. CDC is currently making findings from these activities available to state and local public health and education agencies.

Most (96%) public and private schools have remained open for full in-person learning. However, an estimated 1,800 schools have had school closures attributable to COVID-19 outbreaks, affecting the education and well-being of 933,000 students. To prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, CDC recommends multicomponent prevention strategies, including vaccination, universal indoor masking, screening testing, and physical distancing ( 5 ).

Corresponding author: Sharyn E. Parks, [email protected] .

1 CDC COVID-19 Response Team; 2 Booz Allen Hamilton, McLean, Virginia; 3 Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland; 4 Palantir Technologies, Denver, Colorado.

All authors have completed and submitted the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors form for disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.

* https://cai.burbio.com/school-opening-tracker/ external icon

† https://www.mchdata.com/covid19/schoolclosings external icon

§ https://www.returntolearntracker.net/ external icon

¶ Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

** https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/districtsearch/ external icon

†† 45 C.F.R. part 46, 21 C.F.R. part 56; 42 U.S.C. Sect. 241(d); 5 U.S.C. Sect. 552a; 44 U.S.C. Sect. 3501 et seq.

  • Office of the President of the United States. National strategy for the COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness. Washington, DC: White House; 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/National-Strategy-for-the-COVID-19-Response-and-Pandemic-Preparedness.pdf pdf icon external icon
  • Rabiner LR. A tutorial on hidden Markov models and selected applications in speech recognition. Proc IEEE 1989;77:257–86. https://doi.org/10.1109/5.18626 external icon
  • Zviedrite N, Hodis JD, Jahan F, Gao H, Uzicanin A. COVID-19–associated school closures and related efforts to sustain education and subsidized meal programs, United States, February 18–June 30, 2020. PLoS One 2021;16:e0248925. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0248925 external icon PMID:34520475 external icon
  • Desilver D. ‘Back to school’ means anytime from late July to after Labor Day, depending on where in the U.S. you live. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/14/back-to-school-dates-u-s/ external icon
  • CDC. COVID-19: guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K–12 schools. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2021. Accessed September 21, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html

FIGURE . COVID-19–related kindergarten through grade 12 school closures, by region and state — United States, August 2–September 17, 2021

Suggested citation for this article: Parks SE, Zviedrite N, Budzyn SE, et al. COVID-19–Related School Closures and Learning Modality Changes — United States, August 1–September 17, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:1374–1376. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7039e2 external icon .

MMWR and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report are service marks of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Use of trade names and commercial sources is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. References to non-CDC sites on the Internet are provided as a service to MMWR readers and do not constitute or imply endorsement of these organizations or their programs by CDC or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. CDC is not responsible for the content of pages found at these sites. URL addresses listed in MMWR were current as of the date of publication.

All HTML versions of MMWR articles are generated from final proofs through an automated process. This conversion might result in character translation or format errors in the HTML version. Users are referred to the electronic PDF version ( https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr ) and/or the original MMWR paper copy for printable versions of official text, figures, and tables.

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 COVID-19  KŌWHEORI-19

Te Mahau is part of Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga | The Ministry of Education.

Information and advice for students, schools and kura, and the education sector.

KŌWHEORI-19 Ngā tohutohu...

COVID-19 Advice and Guidance for…

COVID-19 strategy for early learning services

Ventilation guidance for early learning services  

Useful information and links

Frequently asked questions

COVID-19 health and safety response

Supporting ākonga at higher risk of illness from COVID-19

Managing staff

Supporting attendance and student engagement

Ventilation in schools

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He Pitopito Kōrero | School Leaders Bulletin  

Managing COVID-19

Tertiary and international COVID-19 bulletin

Vaccination information for schools and kura, early learning services, visitors to Ministry worksites

Key contacts

Reactions to change and supporting tamariki

Support for tamariki and whānau

Looking after your wellbeing

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Places to find support and guidance

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 We want to hear from you  E hiahia ana mātou kia rongo mai i ō whakaaro

We will be developing this website over time and would love to hear your feedback.

The CDC has relaxed COVID guidelines. Will schools and day cares follow suit?

Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, the CDC says parents can start treating the virus like other respiratory illnesses

BOSTON -- Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and upended child care, the CDC says parents can start treating the virus like other respiratory illnesses.

Gone are mandated isolation periods and masking. But will schools and child care centers agree?

In case you’ve lost track: Before Friday, all Americans, including school children, were supposed to stay home for at least five days if they had COVID-19 and then mask for a set period of time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, with COVID deaths and hospitalizations dropping, the CDC says children can go back to school when their overall symptoms improve and they’re fever-free for 24 hours without taking medication. Students are “encouraged” to wear a mask when they return.

Still, the change may not affect how individual schools urge parents to react when their children fall sick. Schools and child care providers have a mixed record on following CDC recommendations and often look to local authorities for the ultimate word. And sometimes other goals, such as reducing absences, can influence a state or district’s decisions.

The result can be a confusing array of policies among states and districts, not to mention workplaces — confounding parents whose lives have long been upended by the virus.

“This is so confusing,” said Gloria Cunningham, a single mom in the Boston area. “I just don’t know what I should think of COVID now. Is it still a monster?”

Cunningham, who manages a local store for a national restaurant chain, said her company requires her to take off 10 days if she gets COVID-19. And the school system where her son is in second grade has still been sending home COVID test kits for kids to use before returning to school after long breaks.

“I feel like we should just do away with anything that treats COVID differently or keep all of the precautions,” she said.

The public education system has long held varying policies on COVID. During the 2021-2022 school year, only 18 states followed CDC recommendations for mask-wearing in class. When the CDC lifted its masking guidelines in February of 2022, states like Massachusetts followed suit, but California kept the mask requirement for schools.

And in the child care world, some providers have long used more stringent testing and isolation protocols than the CDC has recommended. Reasons have ranged from trying to prevent outbreaks to keeping staff healthy — both for their personal safety and to keep the day care open.

Some states moved to more lenient guidelines ahead of the CDC. California and Oregon recently rescinded COVID-19 isolation requirements, and many districts followed their advice.

In an attempt to minimize school absences and address an epidemic of chronic absenteeism, California has encouraged kids to come to school when mildly sick and said that students who test positive for coronavirus but are asymptomatic can attend school. Los Angeles and San Diego’s school systems, among others, have adopted that policy.

But the majority of big-city districts around the country still have asked parents to isolate children for at least five days before returning to school. Some, including Boston and Atlanta, have required students to mask for another five days and report positive COVID-19 test results to the school.

Some school leaders suggest the CDC's previous five-day isolation requirement was already only loosely followed.

Official policy in Burlington, Massachusetts, has been to have students stay home for five days if they test positive. But Superintendent Eric Conti said the real policy, in effect, is: “It’s a virus. Deal with it.”

That’s because COVID is managed at home, using the honor system.

“Without school-based testing, no one can enforce a five-day COVID policy,” he said via text message.

Ridley School District in the Philadelphia suburbs was already using a policy similar to the new CDC guidelines, said Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel. Students who test positive for COVID must be fever-free without medication for at least 24 hours before returning to school. When they come back, they must mask for five days. Wentzel said the district is now considering dropping the masking requirement because of the new CDC guidance.

A school or day care's specific guidelines are consequential for working parents who must miss work if their child can’t go to school or child care. In October 2023, during simultaneous surges of COVID, respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, 104,000 adults reported missing work because of child care issues, the highest number in at least a decade. That number has fallen: Last month, child care problems meant 41,000 adults missed work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Melissa Colagrosso’s child care center in West Virginia dropped special guidelines for COVID about a year ago, she said. Now, they’re the same as other illnesses: A child must be free of severe symptoms such as fever for at least 24 hours before returning to the center.

“We certainly are treating COVID just like we would treat flu or hand, foot and mouth” disease, said Colagrosso, CEO of A Place To Grow Children’s Center in Oak Hill.

As for kids without symptoms who test positive for COVID? Most parents have stopped testing kids unless they have symptoms, Colagrasso said, so it’s a quandary she has not encountered.

Still, some parents worry the relaxed rules put their communities at greater risk. Evelyn Alemán leads a group of Latino and Indigenous immigrant parents in Los Angeles County. The parents she represents, many of whom suffer from chronic illnesses and lack of access to health care, panicked when California did away with isolation requirements in January.

“I don’t think they’re considering what the impact will be for our families,” she said of California officials. “It feels like they don’t care – that we’re almost expendable.”

Other impacts of the pandemic linger, too, even as restrictions are lifted. In Ridley, the Philadelphia-area district, more students are reclusive and struggle to interact in-person with peers, said Wentzel, the superintendent. Interest in school dances has plummeted.

"Emotionally," Wentzel said, “they’re having trouble.”

Balingit reported from Washington.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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Ontario will no longer report school, child care COVID-19 numbers: Ministry of Education memos

'Parents have to decide to send their kids to school not knowing if the school has a high number of COVID cases'

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TORONTO — Ontario will no longer be reporting COVID-19 case figures in schools or child-care settings amid an ongoing, provincewide surge in new infections, according to a pair of memos from the Ministry of Education.

The directives to school boards and childcare centre operators, written on Thursday and released by opposition critics a day later, say the provincial government is suspending the reporting of cases in these facilities because of “changes to case and contact management.”

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“Further information will be shared shortly with school boards on reporting expectations of absences in schools and school closures due to COVID-19, in conjunction with educational and paediatric leaders,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and deputy minister Nancy Naylor write in one of the letters.

Lecce and Naylor’s letter and the other memo sent by Holly Moran, an assistant deputy minister in the ministry’s early years and child care division, do not say whether the guidelines will be distributed before the start of classes on Jan. 5.

The Ministry of Education did not respond to request for comment on the memos.

The memos were released Friday by the opposition New Democrats, who are calling for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to reverse the decision to end reporting at these institutions.

“Parents have to decide to send their kids to school not knowing if the school has a high number of COVID cases,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said, in a release.

“If we can’t track where the virus is, we can’t fight it.”

She also noted on Twitter that school principals have a duty under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to report it to the local public health unit if they are “of the opinion that a pupil in the school has or may have a communicable disease.”

Stiles’ comments came on the heels of the province’s decision Thursday to delay the return to school by two days to help schools better cope with COVID-19.

The delay was announced at the same time that the province revealed it would significantly curtail who is eligible for government-funded COVID-19 testing.

Testing is now available only for individuals in high-risk settings who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus.

The variant is causing the province’s COVID-19 case counts to soar and repeatedly break records set days before.

On Saturday, Public Health Ontario said the province reached a new daily record for new COVID-19 cases.

The organization reported 18,445 more COVID-19 cases, up from the previous record set just a day earlier when there were 16,713 infections reported.

However, it warned the true number of cases is likely higher than the figure it reported for the day.

It said the number of infected Ontarians is an “underestimate” because recent policy changes have made COVID-19 testing less accessible just as cases linked to the Omicron variant are climbing.

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ministry of education reporting covid cases

Ontario won’t share school, child-care COVID-19 data, Ministry of Education memos show

This article was published more than 2 years ago. Some information may no longer be current.

ministry of education reporting covid cases

A privately run COVID-19 testing site is seen at a shopping mall in Toronto on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario will no longer be reporting COVID-19 case figures in schools or child-care settings amid an ongoing, provincewide surge in new infections, according to a pair of memos from the Ministry of Education.

The directives to school boards and child-care centre operators, written on Thursday and released by opposition critics a day later, say the provincial government is suspending the reporting of cases in these facilities because of “changes to case and contact management.”

“Further information will be shared shortly with school boards on reporting expectations of absences in schools and school closures due to COVID-19, in conjunction with educational and pediatric leaders,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and deputy minister Nancy Naylor write in one of the letters.

COVID-19 hospitalizations up 67 per cent in week as Omicron takes hold

Omicron symptoms mirror the flu and common cold. What should I do if I feel sick?

Lecce and Naylor’s letter and the other memo sent by Holly Moran, an assistant deputy minister in the ministry’s early years and child-care division, do not say whether the guidelines will be distributed before the start of classes on Jan. 5.

The Ministry of Education did not respond to request for comment on the memos.

The memos were released Friday by the opposition New Democrats, who are calling for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to reverse the decision to end reporting at these institutions.

“Parents have to decide to send their kids to school not knowing if the school has a high number of COVID cases,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said, in a release.

“If we can’t track where the virus is, we can’t fight it.”

The Ford government is cancelling required reporting of COVID cases in schools & daycare. And they snuck this thru in a memo issued on NYE. Accountability? Transparency? Not in Doug Ford Ontario. #onpoli #onted https://t.co/m54hMcgYaS — Marit Stiles (@maritstiles) December 31, 2021

She also noted on Twitter that school principals have a duty under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to report it to the local public health unit if they are “of the opinion that a pupil in the school has or may have a communicable disease.”

Stiles’ comments came on the heels of the province’s decision Thursday to delay the return to school by two days to help schools better cope with COVID-19.

The delay was announced at the same time that the province revealed it would significantly curtail who is eligible for government-funded COVID-19 testing.

Testing is now available only for individuals in high-risk settings who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus.

The variant is causing the province’s COVID-19 case counts to soar and repeatedly break records set days before.

On Saturday, Public Health Ontario said the province reached a new daily record for new COVID-19 cases.

The organization reported 18,445 more COVID-19 cases, up from the previous record set just a day earlier when there were 16,713 infections reported.

However, it warned the true number of cases is likely higher than the figure it reported for the day.

It said the number of infected Ontarians is an “underestimate” because recent policy changes have made COVID-19 testing less accessible just as cases linked to the Omicron variant are climbing.

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UNICEF’s lessons learned from the education response to the COVID-19 crisis and reflections on the implications for education policy

Janet lennox.

a Education Specialist in UNICEF in New York, United States

Nicolas Reuge

b Senior Education Advisor in UNICEF in New York, United States

Francisco Benavides

c Regional Education Advisor in UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand

COVID-19 triggered mass innovation that grew flexible learning modalities and pathways that can be built upon in future sector plans to make education systems more resilient. These tools must be paired with investments in the people expected to use them and strengthened data systems. To ensure plans are rooted in ever-pressurised budgets, Education Ministers will increasingly need to turn to economic analysis. Expansion of partnerships will be necessary to secure greater and more innovative forms of finance but also affordable digital learning solutions. If these opportunities are seized alongside the disruption wrought by the pandemic, they can equalize opportunities and accelerate progress.

1. Introduction

At its peak at the end of April 2020, schools shuttered by COVID-19 sent home nearly 1.6 billion students: this was 94 per cent of those enrolled worldwide and up to 99 per cent of the student population in low- and lower-middle-income countries ( UN, 2020 ). Although that figure has fallen to 17.9 per cent by the end of November 2020, more than half of countries in a survey from October 2020 reported that they are combining remote learning and in-person education as schools reopen ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ). Much hangs in the balance both for individual learners and countries which rely on the transformative potential of education to forge a pathway out of poverty to peaceful, prosperous lives and societies. Will the disruption and mass experimentation seen in education in response to COVID-19 catalyse transformative change within education systems or will it simply exacerbate the existing global learning crisis?

This paper analyses lessons learned from both the COVID-19 school closures and subsequent school reopening process to identify policy options and priorities to inform education sector planning and budgeting processes and enable decision-makers to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate wide-scale reform and innovation in education. It is intended to improve education-related programming within UNICEF and contribute to public policy debates and reforms accelerated by the pandemic. Section 2.1 addresses whether COVID-19 can be a catalyst to make education systems more resilient with a focus on education sector planning and data. Section 2.2 examines implications for education budgets and financing, and Section 3 sets out the overarching Conclusions.

It relies on a mix of qualitative and quantitative information. Internal UNICEF-led surveys conducted between June and September 2020 on education responses to COVID-19 along with the joint UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank survey of Ministries of Education published in October 2020 provided valuable evidence, as does analysis of UNICEF-supported household surveys, such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys. Interviews, case studies, and documentation of lessons learned from UNICEF education teams around the world up to February 2021 are other key sources along with some external literature. Initial data from these sources paints an interesting picture regarding access to distance learning modalities, but much work is still to be done to analyse quality and effectiveness.

2. Making education systems more resilient

Although education sector planning processes have become increasingly complex over the past ten years with the possibility of including more sophisticated analysis, few countries were prepared for the shock to education systems wrecked by COVID-19. This is true not only for governments but for development partners and multilaterals as well. Despite the previous pandemic scares posed by SARS, MERS and Ebola, the novel coronavirus caught the world off guard by its quick spread and upending of economies and virtually every aspect of daily life. Almost no education system was spared, and the widespread school closures and restrictions galvanized great urgency to overcome the resulting learning gaps. In order to make education systems more resilient to such shocks over the medium and long term, the lessons learned within this experience must be appropriately accounted for in future education sector planning and financing.

2.1. Education sector plans

2.1.1. measuring and mitigating risk.

In an ever-globalised world, why had so few education systems planned for a pandemic or, more generally, an alternative to face-to-face learning? In part, it is human nature to look backward to previous plans in order to build future ones. If done too mechanically, this approach can miss future threats and opportunities. As well, sector planning methodology is still grappling with the best way to integrate cross-cutting issues, such as emergencies, which are often not the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Education. Governments also tend to ignore low probability but high impact risks, particularly in the face of finite budgets ( Gardner, 2020 ). Decision-makers in constrained systems, where the number of issues to address frequently overwhelms the resources available, may necessarily prioritise scant resources towards issues that already exist, rather than those that may or may not materialise. The result is that education sector plans may be only partially risk informed.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought home to all countries the importance of integrating planning for emergencies, including beyond natural disasters, into sector plans and budgets. As climate change exacerbates the frequency and severity of natural disasters, the probability that countries will have to confront overlapping emergencies is growing and, in some cases, inevitable ( UNICEF, 2019 ). In the disaster-prone Pacific Islands, for example, Cyclone Harold hit within the first month of COVID-19 school closures and the resulting switch to distance learning. However, because of the long tradition of emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction in schools, Fiji and Vanuatu were able to minimise the disruption to children’s learning. For instance, the well-established communication mechanisms among teachers, parents and children proved invaluable during the switch to distance learning when schools were closed, during reopening, and for the monitoring of the safety and well-being of teachers and children. Their previous experience and planning also led them to prioritise teacher and student well-being throughout school closures and reopening, and UNICEF was positioned to respond immediately with the provision of temporary learning spaces and education supplies in areas where schools had been destroyed in the cyclone. As a result, both countries were able to reopen all their schools within two months despite the twin emergencies of COVID-19 and the cyclone ( UNICEF, 2020a ).

This lesson has not been lost in the recently published Education Sector Analysis Methodological Guidelines Volume III , which includes more detailed information on vulnerability and risk analysis that has been informed by the pandemic ( UNESCO et al., 2021 ). In addition to the newly updated risk assessment tools, countries can also draw on research undertaken during the pandemic that identifies promising practices in equitable remote learning and the reach of different distance learning modalities ( Dreesen et al., 2020 ; UNICEF, 2020b ), and which can be used to tailor distance learning policy and plans. The three-volume series is the primary resource utilised in the construction of education sector plans.

While recognising the challenges facing planners in resource-constrained countries, it is still more cost effective to plan than to react in the midst of a crisis. Countries can think through a continuity plan of how to reach students and other relevant groups if schools had to close suddenly as part of its Education Sector Analysis, whether through high-, low- or no-tech means or, more likely, a mix. A risk informed analysis could see a country review how it keeps contact information current and decide on a communication protocol in the event of an emergency. Other examples include reflecting on whether the curriculum is suitable for delivery through distance learning and whether teacher training programmes adequately reflect the skills necessary to deliver using distance learning or blended learning.

2.1.2. Redundancies and resilience

2.1.2.1. multiple distance learning modalities.

Concerned with overcoming the digital divide, countries activated a menu of options, typically a mix of digital and non-digital methods in order to reach the greatest number of children ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ). This approach to decision-making is illustrated in Fig. 1 below ( UNICEF, 2020c ).

Fig. 1

Tailoring learning modalities, considering country or regional circumstances.

In addition to the four main remote learning methods presented in Fig. 2 (that is, online, TV, radio and take-home lessons), internal UNICEF surveys from May 2020 found that 72 out of 135 countries also used SMS messages, instant messaging or social media platforms to deliver educational content and facilitate ongoing engagement and communication amongst teachers, students, and families. In rare cases and under appropriate circumstances, education ministries enabled home visits for hard-to-reach children.

Fig. 2

Provision of remote learning modalities, by income group.

Notes: Countries were not asked directly about remote learning modalities. Reponses to the question of the effectiveness of remote learning (which included very effective, effective, not effective, we don’t have such systems) were used to develop a proxy indicator. The proxy indicator was equal to 1 if countries rated the effectiveness of the remote learning modality (thereby confirming they were implementing the modality) and equal to 0 when they selected "we don't have such systems."

An example of deployment of multiple distance learning modalities is the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in Timor-Leste that made learning materials available via TV, radio, internet, SMS, mobile app and in print ( UNICEF, 2020d ). Similarly, in Jordan, lessons were shared online, on social media, in print and, in exceptional circumstances, through home-based visits to offer tailored supports for children with disabilities living in refugee camps ( UNICEF, 2020e ). Jordan’s national blended learning programme, Learning Bridges, launched following school reopening to help children recover lost learning from 2020 and accelerate learning in the current academic year, also relies heavily on printed learning packs that each come with a QR code that links to other resources, including audio files and online materials, for those children with access to a smartphone ( UNICEF, 2021a ).

2.1.2.2. Equity and resilience

Despite these efforts to mitigate the digital divide through the use of multiple modalities and a mix of high-, low- and no-tech options, significant swathes of children were still left behind, compounding significant pre-existing inequities. Comparing the remote learning response methods, countries’ Ministries of Education reporting available data on access to internet and broadcast media ( UNICEF, 2020b ), estimated that a minimum of one third, or 463 million schoolchildren, were not reached with digital and broadcast remote learning (see Fig. 3 ). Since this estimation does not account for children who nominally had access to a technology which their country utilized to provide remote learning but who nevertheless did not access remote learning through that technology, it is likely that the actual number of children not reached through these methods is much higher.

Fig. 3

Share and number of students potentially reached and not reached by digital and broadcast remote learning policies, by region (pre-primary to upper secondary).

Notes: The share and number of schoolchildren potentially reached – and the minimum share and number who were definitely not reached – were estimated using UNICEF, UNESCO and World Bank data on the implementation of digital and broadcast remote learning policies in countries as well as MICS, DHS, and other national household survey data on the availability of technologies (TV, radio, Internet or PC) needed to study at home. “Reached” indicates potential maximums; “Cannot be reached” indicates minimums, which are likely much higher.

In some countries, the reach of remote learning was much worse than the estimates in Fig. 3 suggest. For example, in Nepal, two-thirds of children were unable to access home-based learning ( UNICEF, 2020f ). To help close the gap, since 2019, UNICEF has been working with the International Telecommunication Union with the aim of connecting every school to the internet through a global initiative called Giga. Nevertheless, educational exclusion is expected to drive up dropout, with UNESCO estimating that at least 24 million students are at risk of not returning to school following the disruptions caused by the pandemic ( UNESCO, 2020a ).

While initial data focused on access, it is not the whole of the story. Quality and efficacy are much harder to track, and the evidence is less robust. This is discussed in more detail in the sub-section on Measuring Learning.

The identity of those groups of children is not a mystery: unequal access was exacerbated for rural, poor, linguistic minorities and children with disabilities ( Dreesen et al., 2020 ; UNICEF, 2020b ). Girls, too, face greater exclusion as exemplified in case studies on the COVID-19 and education response from Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire ( UNICEF, 2020g , 2020h ). In addition to the increased rates of violence, early pregnancy and marriage that girls may experience as a result of school closures, scarce devices may be prioritised for boys and so, too, educational opportunities, as the economic impact of COVID-19 throws more families into poverty ( Rafaeli and Hutchinson, 2020 ; UNFPA and UNICEF, 2020 ; World Vision, 2020 ). Fig. 4 , below, ( UNICEF, 2020b ) shows the overlapping nature of this educational exclusion while Fig. 5 sheds light on the gendered gaps in digital skills and use of devices ( Amaro et al., 2020 ).

Fig. 4

Students who cannot be reached, by sex, household wealth and area of residence, by country economic classification.

Fig. 5

Percentage of adolescents (aged 15 to 18 years) with ICT skills, by sex and household computer possession.

Girls do not always have equal access to devices or internet connection. For example, even in India, world renowned for information technology, boys are twice as likely to own mobile phones than girls ( UNICEF, 2020i ). Where families have to share a device, boys may be prioritised over girls ( UNICEF, 2020j ). Access to the internet also skews against girls, particularly those living in the least developed countries ( UNESCO et al., 2020b ).

Progress in educational rights, which focused largely on expanded access, will likely be rolled back, especially for girls. In the words of education activist Malala Yousafzai, girls “are the first to be removed from school and the last to return.” According to the Malala Fund ( Malala Fund, 2020 ), an estimated 20 million secondary-aged girls are estimated to drop out of school as a result of the current public health emergency.

Educational exclusion is cumulative based on factors such as poverty, geography, language, gender, and disability. While there is no silver bullet to ensuring equity in distance learning, planning for a mix of learning modalities tailored to a country’s context and provision of appropriate devices – whether tablets or solar powered radios – for the most disadvantaged families is critical to reaching the most marginalised groups of children. Building alternative learning modalities using the principles of universal design; that is, planning for teaching and learning methods that are more engaging for all learners (learning through a variety of methods with more interactive elements), presentation (content presented in a variety of ways and in a variety of languages that meets children’s needs or learning preferences), and action and expression (learners showing what they know in a variety of ways) is a useful starting point ( World Bank, 2020a ). A checklist proposed by the Inclusive Education Initiative helps decision-makers work through the overarching considerations of remote learning choice, community accessibility, educational accessibility, and individualization ( World Bank, 2020a ).

Other important solutions to inequity will come from greater collaboration and partnership, particularly with mobile network operators and other private sector actors, to expand access to more affordable devices and data. This includes potentially subsidised devices, more pay-as-you-go options, service bundling, tiered pricing and zero-rating for educational sites, where appropriate. Experiences from Timor-Leste and Turkey also highlight the importance of mobile apps, especially those that allow learners to work offline, as a strategy to increase reach through the growing numbers of smart phones as well as to reduce costs for learners to access educational resources ( Lennox and Taulo, 2020 ; UNICEF, 2020d ). The UNICEF-supported Learning Passport is also being rolled out in a growing number of countries with online and offline capabilities. Jordan’s Youth Learning Passport programme is one such example ( UNICEF, 2021b ). Globally, 63 per cent of governments reported taking action to improve access to online learning platforms through mobile phones ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ).

2.1.2.3. Blended learning

As school reopenings accelerated in the second half of 2020, reliance on multiple learning modalities continued. Most education systems opted for blended learning, dividing school populations into cohorts and offering a mix of in-person and home-based learning to mitigate risk, including the potential of school reclosure. Globally, 54 per cent of 116 countries reported that they were or would be combining in-person and distance learning when schools reopened ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ). Others have integrated the alternative learning modalities established during COVID-19 for broader uses, such as offering a more comprehensive range of learning materials to students following reopening, presenting complementary courses, or as a means to offer catch-up programmes to mitigate learning loss. Blended learning, it seems, is here to stay.

Countries that had longer-term investment or experience with alternative learning modalities were able to pivot most quickly to home-based learning as COVID-19 shut down schools. This is evidenced in both high- and low-tech focused responses.

When responding to COVID-19-related school closures, countries marked by previous emergencies could draw upon earlier experience implementing radio education programmes. These include countries that had weathered the Ebola crisis, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan.

A review of the Education Response to the Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone noted mixed findings on the utility of radio programming. The three countries developed different implementation strategies, but the most successful occurred in Sierra Leone where it was set up quickly, covered multiple subjects from pre-primary through to secondary and where UNICEF and other education partners distributed over 60,000 solar radios. Over 65 per cent of families with school-aged children regularly listened to the programme. The programme was used to communicate lifesaving messages about Ebola prevention, facilitate catch up learning and provide an educational opportunity for out-of-school children. The programme was not limited to the period of the emergency and is considered a useful resource for in-person classes led by “unqualified teachers”. Guinea’s radio programme was focused mainly on providing catch up education after schools had reopened but was also considered “good quality and appreciated by the population”. One respondent stated that radio education was an “essential way to reinforce pupils’ learning but also to provide psychosocial support and to mobilize communities against the spread of Ebola”. In Liberia, however, coverage, quality and usage of radio education were low. The review did not refer to concrete figures on learning outcomes, noting overall monitoring challenges, including a tendency to focus on inputs ( UNICEF, 2016 ).

Another example is Uruguay. Its long-term, strategic investment in digital learning since 2007 through its one-laptop-per-child policy, Plan Ceibal, made the country more resilient to the shock of COVID-19 ( UNICEF, 2020k ). These long-term investments in devices and digital architecture combined with seven years of teacher development on online teaching prior to the pandemic enabled Uruguay to pivot quickly to home-based learning during the period of school closures since the country had a well-established national system of digital learning already in place, one it had continuously refined over many years. Plan Ceibal operates nationally, covering “85 per cent of Uruguay’s 1 million students in the formal education system: 100 per cent in public schools aged 6–15 years and their teachers, as well as students in private schools in poor areas” ( UNICEF, 2020k ). Similarly, it was well positioned to move to phased reopening of its schools for the same reason: the system and the people in it were prepared to deliver blended learning; that is, a combination of in-person lessons for students in low-risk rural schools and online classes for everyone else. It was the first country in Latin America to do so, starting to reopen schools gradually beginning in April 2020 ( Milian et al., 2020 ; Robinson et al., 2020 ; UNICEF, 2020l ).

2.1.2.4. Investing in people

Not all one-laptop-per-child schemes are successful ( Robertson, 2018 ), and a powerful lesson from Uruguay’s experience is the importance of investing not only in the technology but also in the people that bring the tool to life ( UNICEF, 2020l ). Since 2010, Plan Ceibal has increasingly focused on teacher development and modernising pedagogy ( UNICEF, 2020l ). The same lesson was repeated in research on promising practices for equitable remote learning, which recommended strengthening support for remote learning among teachers, parents, and caregivers for greatest effect on children’s learning and well-being ( Dreesen et al., 2020 ).

Many countries are already moving to do so or accelerating efforts to train teachers and other education personnel in their rapidly evolving roles as facilitators of home-based or blended learning. For example, over 90 per cent of teachers in Timor-Leste are registered on the online Learning Passport platform, through which a virtual certification course helped prepare them for school reopening ( UNICEF, 2020m ). In Malaysia, education authorities launched not only online teacher training on distance learning, but also a digital community to foster peer-to-peer learning and support ( UNICEF, 2020n ).

Students, too, need the relevant skills. Gaps in digital skills among girls and women, unless addressed, will also undermine meaningful access to learning opportunities ( Amaro et al., 2020 ).

If the mass experiment with home-based learning during the pandemic shined a light on the role of schools and teachers, it also made parents frontline responders and engaged them in children’s learning as never before ( Borisova, 2020 ; Pokhrel and Chhetri, 2021 ). Research has highlighted the importance of parental engagement to foster children’s learning, particularly for foundational skills, such as reading, which the current public health emergency has only served to heighten. Authors Angrist et al. ( Angrist et al., 2020a ) highlight the importance of factoring in communication with parents or caregivers. They observed that distance learning (basic math problems delivered through SMS messages) combined with follow-up communication with the household (live calls from the instructor) increased parental engagement with their children’s learning ( Angrist et al., 2020a ). Ultimately, this helped to increase learning outcomes as well as parental understanding of their children’s level and needs ( Angrist et al., 2020a ). Globally, WhatsApp and messaging applications were the most common communication tool reported (in 84 per cent of countries) for interactions between teachers, students, and parents/caregivers during remote learning, followed by mobile phones in 67 per cent of countries ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ). While these were also the most common modalities in low-income countries, guidelines for such outreach were much less prevalent among this group.

In Argentina, policy-makers addressed the human element of remote learning by providing support to everyone in the school community, not just students and teachers but also school managers and students’ families ( UNICEF, 2020o ). This support took the form of a series of tailored booklets, videos, and podcasts.

These trends follow education research concluding that what really matters for student learning is “the interactions among educators, learners, and educational materials” ( Centre for Educational Research and Innovation and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2008 ; Cohen and Ball, 1999 ; OECD, 2010 ). It is not enough to simply replace a physical textbook with an online version. What matters is whether the teacher can capitalise on the tool or resource through improved instruction to give the student an improved learning experience ( Winthrop and Vegas, 2020 ). The proof of the realization of this ambition will only come through tracking improvements in student learning; however, the initial evidence base is skewed to access, which is easier to measure.

For similar reasons, moving to digital, accessible textbooks that can be tailored to fit children’s specific learning needs and preferences is a more powerful change than simply digitising conventional texts. Countries such as Kenya and Timor-Leste are advancing work that seeks to combine technology, multiple language versions, and online learning platforms precisely because of their potential to transform education by overcoming longstanding barriers for children with disabilities or those from ethnic minority groups ( UNICEF 2020m , 2020p ).

This emerging evidence is critically important for policymakers looking to build multiple ways to offer learning in order to make education systems more resilient. The human element cannot be lost.

2.1.2.5. Multiple learning pathways

Much of the efforts in the initial phase of the emergency centred around establishing or expanding a variety of learning modalities to offer continuity, throwing open a greater range of options to help students resume their previous studies. The increased number of learning modalities brought students back to learning. Flipping this around, their proliferation opens the door to a different but growing ambition, which is to bring learning to the child. For instance, the initial purpose of the online learning platform, the Learning Passport, was to bring recognised educational pathways to displaced or refugee children. The design contemplated the possibility of such students to move back and forth between educational pathways, for example, reintegrating into their home or another national education system as their circumstances changed ( UNICEF, 2020q ).

The recognition that children’s educational needs vary over time is at the heart of work at expanding quality learning pathways. If education systems were child centred, they could accommodate integration and reintegration of not only children in emergencies but other flexible learning pathways, such as a move from in-person basic education to a short online skills certification course or non-formal education, to a more in-depth technical programme with an apprenticeship. For example, the COVID-19 response in Jordan and the Philippines specifically included non-formal second chance options to allow adolescents to finish their basic education and/or bridge to technical and vocational courses ( Al-Smadi, 2020 ; UNICEF 2020r ).

This approach of bringing tailored learning to the child, particularly to adolescents whose needs may branch out as they grow older, moves in parallel with the analysis of researchers from the Brookings Institute who criticise the traditional “stepwise” evolution of education systems that focus first on improved access, then quality, and finally relevance ( Winthrop and Ziegler, 2019 ). Instead, they advocate for pursuing all three simultaneously to advance results for children in a timely way ( Winthrop and Ziegler, 2019 ).

2.1.2.6. Policy implications

Over 2020, countries became more flexible in their approaches to learning modalities and pathways. Policymakers will need to ensure that there is parity and coherence between the different platforms and pathways. In some cases, this means addressing legislative barriers. For example, Bolivia passed Decree 4260 on 6 June 2020 ( Government of Bolivia, 2020 ) to recognise the different modalities of blended learning, including in-person, part-time in-person, online, and distance learning, across the various sub-systems; that is, basic, alternative and special education as well as teacher training and professional development. No one modality will reach all children, so countries working to make their education systems more resilient typically need to opt for a menu of choices, typically a mix of digital and non-digital options, with mobile apps allowing offline work garnering growing attention. The precise constellation of the menu of options chosen may vary both by group of children and/or by region and will turn on the specific country context, including internet penetration rate, access to mass media, mobile phone ownership and network coverage as part of risk informed education sector analysis and subsequent planning and budgeting.

Beyond the decision around selection of learning modalities, monitoring and learning assessment will also need to adapt to track learning more frequently and across the various learning modalities and pathways in order for student progress to be noted and recognised ( Conto et al., 2020 ). If learning is to put children and adolescents at the centre, greater integration of different pathways or sub-systems will be required. Adoption of human-centred plans means including training and supports for teachers, students, families, and school managers as well as strategies to ensure ongoing two-way communication whether through high-tech online platforms or low-tech telephone calls or texts. Teaching and learning that enable more tailored learning experiences also have a greater value-add, including resources based on universal design which can overcome longstanding barriers, including those related to language of instruction and disability. Combined, these elements will maximise the likelihood of meaningful impact in learners’ lives.

2.1.3. Data

Most education systems reactively put alternative learning modalities in place after the pandemic triggered school shutdowns. In the scramble, monitoring systems often came later, which led to gaps in the available data to measure with precision the number and groups of children accessing the various learning modalities but more critically their learning achievements. These monitoring gaps tend to be worse the poorer the country as demonstrated by Fig. 6 , Fig. 7 below examining online and televised lessons ( Conto et al., 2020 ).

Fig. 6

Percentage of countries where governments report monitoring access and assessing online learning among 97 countries reporting use of online learning modalities, by income group.

Data source: UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures (2020)

Notes: The percentages in the figure are simple averages among the number of countries employing the respective remote learning modality, which is specified on the x-axis. Income classification is drawn from the categorization of the World Bank (three countries were dropped from the analysis because of missing information related to income classification).

Fig. 7

Percentage of countries where governments report monitoring access and assessing learning for remote TV learning among 77 countries reporting use of TV as a remote learning channel, by income group.

Pre-existing limitations in EMIS (Education Monitoring and Information System) data, including missing or incomplete information on pre-primary education, technical and vocational education, non-formal education, learners with disabilities or learners in crisis-affected settings, also clouded response plans’ ability to reach all children ( UNESCO, 2020b ). Just 60 per cent of countries adopted digital or broadcast remote learning strategies for pre-primary compared to 91 per cent for the primary level, 87 per cent for lower secondary and 86 per cent for upper secondary, keeping early learning more toward the margins of the response despite the undeniable importance of this foundational level of education ( UNICEF, 2020b ). See Fig. 8 below.

Fig. 8

Share of countries that implemented digital and broadcast remote learning policies, by education level.

In addition, reopening during the pandemic may entail a process of opening up, closing, and reopening, meaning that education systems are likely to have to grapple with considerable fluidity in student enrolment and attendance. For example, in a single month between October and November 2020, re-closure of schools increased the number of affected learners by 38 per cent ( UNESCO, 2020d ). Being able to track student-level data would provide a clearer picture to policymakers. However, not all systems have this ability. Traditional paper-based school surveys that feed into EMIS still predominate ( UNESCO, 2020c ), but this approach will struggle to keep pace with these new phenomena, if paper-based data collection takes place at all during this year of disruptions.

Further, most EMIS were not set up to measure enrolment and attendance in home-based, blended, or in-person learning, which in some education systems now operate simultaneously. Some countries have responded to the need for these new kinds of data by establishing additional monitoring systems to track specific aspects of the country’s education and COVID-19 response to complement what is available through EMIS. A dashboard is one way to keep tabs on the percentage of children in face-to-face classes versus blended learning by grade level as part of school reopening ( Government of Indonesia, 2020 ).

Others have made specific adaptations to their EMIS systems as part of their response. For example, Kyrgyzstan used its EMIS to undertake school-based water and sanitation and COVID-19 risk assessments prior to reopening ( UNICEF, 2020s ), and in Kosovo, education authorities have integrated tracking and reporting COVID-19 cases into their system ( UNICEF, 2020s ). Montenegro has an EMIS module to better identify students at risk of dropout following school reopening ( UNICEF, 2020t ).

Efforts to close gaps in EMIS and provide data to guide decisions are examples of longer-term policy efforts that can serve to strengthen education systems and make them more resilient. The fluctuations of case numbers along with school reopening status is a clear illustration of the importance of strengthening the linkages between the different data systems used in emergencies and development settings ( UNESCO et al., 2020a ). Revamping of these systems would likely require significant investment in data collection systems and infrastructure, particularly to enable more frequent data collection and analysis. The pandemic could also catalyse broader reforms to educational statistical systems to modernise how data is collected and how the subsequent analysis is done and shared, including by reducing inefficiencies.

Too often, data is pushed upward to be eventually published in statistical yearbooks many months later. The drive to embrace digital learning, for example, could also be applied to EMIS to streamline data collection, from the still predominant paper-based questionnaires to online surveys delivered via tablet or smart phone, the latter approach successfully piloted by countries, including Guinea ( World Bank, 2019 ). This could serve to make data collection faster but also facilitate feeding back the analysis to the different levels of the education system; that is, from the schools through to the governing national or sub-national layer, as well as to the public. Such an approach will also require investing in people to ensure that data is not simply made available but utilized to inform decision-making and policy.

This is not an abstract consideration. The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel concluded that information to parents and children on education benefits, costs and quality, where this was not widely available, was a highly cost-effective way to improve attendance and learning, categorising this kind of intervention as the one and only “great buy” for Governments at the top of its rating scale ( Angrist et al., 2020b ). See Fig. 9 below. More broadly, risk communication to prevent and allay fears about the spread of COVID-19 is also seen as a key part of effective COVID-19 response ( Haug et al., 2020 ).

Fig. 9

Learning-Adjusted Years of School Gained per US $100 by Category.

Notes: Each category of education intervention shows the learning-adjusted years of school (LAYS) gained from a given intervention or policy. Each red triangle represents a cost-effectiveness estimate. The boxplot is ordered from largest to smallest mean effects and the shaded boxplot describes the 25th and 75th percentile, with whiskers at upper and lower fences at a distance of 1.5 times the interquartile range above and below the nearest quartile. The y-axis is reported on a natural log scale.

2.1.3.1. Measuring learning

Learning is the ultimate measure of success of any education system. Thus, central to responding to COVID-19 and school reopening will be a plan to take stock of children’s learning ( INEE, 2020 ; World Bank, 2020b ). Unequal access to the tools needed to partake in home-based learning and other supports during the period of school closures, compounded by structural inequalities, will translate into greater learning loss among the most disadvantaged groups of learners ( World Bank, 2020b ).

When schools reopen, returning students “can be expected to return to school up to half of a year behind where they were when the school year was interrupted and more than a year behind where they would have been without school closures” ( Cummiskey, 2021 ). The younger the student, and the earlier and longer the school closure, the greater the learning loss. Countries struggling with low levels of early grade reading may be hit particularly hard. For example, when looking at students reading fewer than 10 words per minute correctly, the RTI International model predicted that there would more Grade 3 students unable to read when schools reopen than when schools started the year prior to COVID in seven of the eight example countries analysed ( Cummiskey, 2021 ). See Fig. 10 below.

Fig. 10

Predicted percentage of non-readers at the start of the school year, at school closure, and reopening.

Recent guidance from the World Bank recommends the following sequence during reopening: use the first few days after reopening to focus on well-being, re-establishing normalcy and rapport to be followed by classroom diagnostic testing, formative assessment of students’ progress in the period of learning recovery, and finally, potentially, summative assessment ( World Bank, 2020b ).

Applied examples highlighted in the Guidance Note include Chile and Brazil. Chile implemented voluntary diagnostic tests that included a questionnaire on socioemotional wellbeing and skills administered through parents or caregivers for children in Grades 1–3 and through self-administered tests to children in Grades 4 and above, as well as assessments of the fundamentals: reading and math. Its supports to teachers and school directors covered specific instruction on the administration, scoring, and use of the results of the diagnostic assessment during reopening. Resources include video tutorials, protocols, and guidelines. In São Paolo, Brazil, the Ministry of Education is encouraging both diagnostic assessment of each student as well as ongoing formative assessment through quizzes, group projects, homework, and portfolios to guide learning recovery. Its guidelines note that summative assessments should be based against what was “actually taught in the classroom” in 2020 rather than against the standard curriculum-based guidelines that would normally apply. Education authorities cancelled the state-level large-scale assessment, Sistema de Avaliação do Rendimento Escolar do Estado de São Paulo, for 2020 given the prolonged disruption caused by the pandemic ( World Bank, 2020b ).

Other examples of formative assessment in reopening from UNICEF-supported education programmes include Madagascar, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Malawi ( Jenkins and Banerji, 2021 ). Mongolia, too, devoted the first classes upon school reopening for formative assessment, the results of which allowed teachers to tailor catch up classes ( UNICEF, 2021c ).

2.2. Education financing and budgets

2.2.1. the “triple shock”.

The World Bank refers to COVID-19’s triple shock ( Al-Samarrai, 2020 ). National economies, households, and foreign aid will all be hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic, putting pressure on education budgets and squeezing opportunities for the most vulnerable children. In their joint analysis, UNICEF and Save the Children estimate that the pandemic pushed another 150 million more children into poverty in low- and middle-income countries ( UNICEF and Save the Children, 2020 ). The fall in family fortunes combined with school closures is expected to lead to girls disproportionately losing educational opportunities, although in some cases, boys will also be pushed out of education into child labour to make up for lost income ( Azevedo et al., 2020 ; UNICEF, 2020u ). The estimated lifetime earnings’ loss for all learners is US $10 trillion or a drop of US $872 per learner per year ( Azevedo et al., 2020 ). The Save Our Future coalition recommends scaling up cash transfers to offset the shock to household earnings so that families have sufficient resources to send their children, particularly their girls, back to school once they reopen ( Save Our Future, 2020 ). The Equitable Education Fund established by the Government of Thailand in May 2020 is one such example of a large-scale conditional cash transfer programme focused specifically on reducing educational inequities ( Government of Thailand, 2020 ; Oxford Policy Management and UN, 2020 ).

Although it is still early to get a full picture on how the pandemic has affected education financing and budgets, emerging evidence points to a disproportional impact on poorer countries. In 2020, governments invested approximately US $11.8 trillion in stimulus packages ( UNESCO, 2020e ). However, only 0.78 per cent or US $91 billion is for education, while the rest is mostly for health response, social protection and economic recovery ( UNESCO, 2020e ). Of those US $91 billion, only US $8.7 billion is in low- and lower-middle-income countries ( UNESCO, 2020e ). The education stimulus was used to offer immediate support during widespread school closures, preparation for the gradual reopening of schools and post-COVID learning recovery ( UNESCO, 2020e ).

Comparing education budget data collected before and after the pandemic began from 29 countries of various regions and income classification shows that budgets declined in 65 per cent of low- and lower-middle-income countries compared to only 33 per cent of high- and upper-middle-income countries ( Al-Samarrai et al., 2021 ). Low- and lower-middle-income countries are also more likely to report cuts to their education sector wage bill and school feeding programmes ( UNICEF et al., 2020 ). It is alarming that the gap in annual funding needed to reach the SDG 4 in low- and lower-middle-income countries has increased from US $148 billion pre-COVID to near US $200 billion post-COVID over the next decade ( UNESCO, 2020f ). This figure dwarfs the annual overseas development assistance budget for education which in 2018 stood at approximately US $16 billion ( Save Our Future, 2020 ).

2.2.2. Illuminating the inevitable trade-offs

Improvement in the quality of budgets is integral to address gaps in the implementation of education sector plans. This will prioritise data and evidence that feed the budget process and also trigger shifts in how policy choices are framed. Integrated National Financing Framework is a new methodology to help countries do this. The approach highlights sustainable development spending priorities alongside an assessment of all the available financing sources: national, international, public, and private. Once education is set out as a priority within the Framework, the tool can help to ensure that resources are mobilised and directed accordingly to avoid or mitigate against the risk of financing gaps that can turn into implementation gaps in national development plans.

Given the growing competition for public resources, Education Ministers will increasingly need to speak the language of their Finance counterparts, perhaps even adopting standard tools used in economic analysis when presenting education budgets, including costings, financial projections, and investment cases. Greater marshalling of evidence and data on cost effectiveness to justify policy and programmatic choices will be required, both within the education sector and more broadly. One example of this kind of evidence is the World Bank’s How to Improve Education Outcomes Most Efficiently? A Comparison of 150 Interventions Using the New Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling Metric ( Angrist et al., 2020b ).

Even before the decision stage, education officials will need to face and assess the inevitable trade-offs. New tools to help decision-makers would likely help. Menus of rigorously evaluated programmes provide education and finance officials guidance in assessing these trade-offs and prioritize the most effective interventions for a given context and budget ( Angrist et al., 2020b ). These could be paired with rigorous analysis of budgets to identify inefficiencies. Decision trees, such as the one UNICEF developed at the beginning of COVID-19-related school closures to guide Governments’ decisions about which remote learning modalities to adopt in which context could offer practical help ( UNICEF, 2020v ).

2.2.3. New approaches

Results-based financing is likely to continue to grow both within countries but also among international donors and partnerships. The Global Partnership for Education, for example, is increasingly moving to a results-based approach, requiring that at least 30 per cent of grants be disbursed upon achievement of pre-agreed goals ( Global Partnership for Education, 2020 ). Impact bonds and education outcome funds may also increasingly appear on the table to attract private sector and other non-state actors who will be key, in particular in efforts to expand digital learning.

Public-private partnerships may also garner increased interest as a cost-effective way to implement promising ideas. For example, in Bulgaria, the Government leveraged an existing website with online tutoring resources ( UNICEF, 2020w ). With a small sum of seed money from the country’s education partners, the company improved its diagnostic testing of students and broadened the scope of its resources to cover all grades and core courses. In Viet Nam, education authorities and development partners are increasingly engaged in initiatives to scale up digital learning, including by mapping internet connection and speeds as well as providing affordable devices and data ( UNICEF, 2020x ).

3. Conclusions

The COVID-19 emergency is a wake-up call for education systems to better prepare before the next emergency hits. Building back better means improved education sector planning and budgeting, specifically a more systematic approach to measuring and mitigating risk right from the design phase, reflected in both sector plans and budgets. At a minimum, all countries will need a continuity of learning plan; that is, a strategy outlining an alternative to face-to-face classes in the event of emergency and ready-to-go ways to facilitate communication among and within key groups, including emergency or health authorities, school directors, teachers, students, and their families.

The pandemic which disrupted everyone, everywhere is also a deeper invitation to rethink education systems by building on the mass experimentation and innovation to bring about transformational change and accelerate still-too-slow progress for the world’s children. New modalities and platforms, if planned carefully, can overcome longstanding barriers due to language, geography, gender, and disability. For example, digital books and learning materials can be designed to include different languages. Audio files, as well as adjustable fonts, sub-titles, more interactive elements tailored to a variety of learning styles and needs go beyond offering a simple alternative to face-to-face learning. The education response to COVID-19 shows that likely a menu of options and a mix of digital and non-digital modalities will be required.

It is also clear that tools in themselves are not enough. Their use depends on the skill and ingenuity of the people using them. School communities must be readied before crisis strikes. Teachers must have practised in an ongoing way how to teach using alternative modalities. The increased engagement of learners’ families and overall appreciation of the importance of schools could be capitalised upon in the blending learning schemes that predominate in reopening schemes.

The greater flexibility education systems have had to embrace should be cultivated to provide children with multiple pathways to learning. The pathways must rise to meet children wherever they are to provide them with ways to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to forge a better life, including from one education to the next or amongst the different component parts as their needs require. These different pathways must be of quality and be recognised to bring about transformative change.

Initial data and analysis from the pandemic have focused largely on the question of access. This has been useful, including to see the yawning gaps, sparking a push for expanding partnerships, particularly with technology and telecom companies to find solutions. Much remains to be done to flesh out the evidence around quality and effectiveness; that is, to measure what children really learned during the pandemic. It is also a lesson learned in the importance of measuring student learning at the fore of any education programme, even in emergency settings.

While measuring improvements in student learning is surely paramount and most challenging, this emergency brings greater urgency to the question of data more broadly. The pandemic underlines the need to close existing data gaps on pre-primary education, technical and vocational education, non-formal education, learners with disabilities or learners in crisis-affected settings, as well as emerging needs such as how to track students in blended learning scenarios. It is also an impetus to modernise how data are collected, analysed and shared, moving towards faster systems paired with investments in institutional capacity so that data are not just collected but acted upon in a timely way to make a real difference to children’s education.

Implementation of sector plans ultimately turns on budgets, and these will come under increasing pressure as the full economic fallout of the virus becomes clear. Education ministers will face tough trade-offs and will be called upon to marshal high quality data and evidence to support their proposed budgets, likely increasingly speaking the language of their Finance counterparts to make their case amidst heightened competition for scarcer public resources. Costings, simulations, and investment cases may grow in importance alongside newer models of financing, such as impact bonds, outcome funds and public-private partnerships.

Education has been forever disrupted. If the opportunity is seized alongside the challenge posed by the pandemic, it can be disrupted for the better to equalize opportunities and accelerate progress.

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Unicef education covid-19 case study: china – supporting the school reopening for 241 million children, to minimize the disruption and ensure the continuity of learning, the government quickly moved to launch the ‘home study initiative’ establishing distance learning, primarily through online and tv programming..

Children have their body temperature checked and use hand sanitizer before entering Zhongzhou Kindergarten, China

China was the first country to face the COVID-19 pandemic. To mitigate the effects of the crisis, the country postponed the start of the new school term usually scheduled for mid-February. The extended closure of over 600,000 kindergartens and schools (including teaching sites) and strict quarantine abruptly changed the lives of over 241 million children in the country. To minimize the disruption and ensure the continuity of learning, the government quickly moved to launch the ‘Home Study Initiative’  establishing distance learning, primarily through online and TV programming . In March, schools started to gradually reopen in a few provinces, with the majority of provinces following suit by May. UNICEF supported the reopening efforts with a comprehensive ‘Safe School’ communication campaign developed in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

KEY FEATURES

•  Leveraging evidence for programming  – To inform decision making and create evidence-based messages, a rapid assessment was conducted to understand the knowledge, awareness and concerns of children, adolescents, parents and teachers on school reopening. The assessment reached more than 18,000 children and youth, more than 27,000 parents and almost 5,000 teachers, and highlighted widespread concerns and stress around school reopening, safety and learning.

•  Addressing mental health and wellbeing  – Responding to the negative impact of COVID-19 and the prolonged quarantine on the mental health and wellbeing of children and youth,  UNICEF developed mental health messages and resources . For the nationwide safe school campaign, UNICEF prominently included key messages on antistigma and bullying as well as psychosocial support to address the concerns and stress children and youth face around school reopening.

•  Complementing the government and adding value  – In the context of a strong government response, UNICEF Education team coordinated closely with the MOE to maximize the complementarity and value-add of UNICEF’s programming. UNICEF’s advocacy and messaging on psychosocial support and mental health complemented the health-focused safe school reopening process of the MOE and local education bureaus to ensure not only health and safety, but also a welcoming and child-friendly school environment for all children as schools reopen. The videos were dubbed in sign language and braille posters were developed as well to meet the needs of children with disabilities.

•  Targeting the right audience by partnering with the government  – UNICEF’s well-established relationship with MOE ensured the prioritization of the safe school campaign across relevant departments. UNICEF utilized government channels for the communication campaign to reach 241 million children and their parents/caregivers and teachers with  safe school messages .

•  Prioritizing inter-sectoral programming  – Early in the school reopening planning, UNICEF established a back-toschool working group led by the Deputy Representative with focal points from education, health, child protection, gender, communications, and monitoring & evaluation to ensure a holistic campaign, thereby leveraging UNICEF’s unique inter-sectoral and thematic expertise.

•  Building in an innovative monitoring system  – To collect feedback and improve the communication messages and materials, UNICEF built innovative monitoring and evaluation approaches into the communication campaign. All posters and videos include QR codes/linksto a short survey with simple questions to gather audience feedback and emerging needs. So far, more than 60,000 respondents have provided evidence on the positive impact of the campaign on children, teachers and parents and ensured its continuous improvement.

EMERGENT LESSONS LEARNED

•  Creating high-level commitment  – UNICEF’s high-level support and commitment to China’s school re-opening process was two-fold: on a political level, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNICEF China Representative’s high-level communication with the MOE ensured high-level advocacy and commitment to UNICEF’s role in the school reopening process. On an operational level, under the leadership of the Deputy Representative’s back-to-school working group underscored the importance and priority of school reopening within the office and across sectors. As a result of this high-level commitment, UNICEF successfully advanced a large-scale digital school reopening campaign in only one month.

•  Providing support at scale  – UNICEF maximized the potential and reach of the school reopening by sharing messages through a number of popular social media platforms including WeChat, Weibo and Douyin (TikTok). Through multiple campaigns, UNICEF reached over 62 million users across channels by June, and government communication channels further amplified the messages. The UNICEF hashtag #backtoschoolsafely# was viewed over 130 million times.

•  Leveraging government systems for programme delivery  – Through the close collaboration with MOE, UNICEF, in addition to the digital resources, was able to provide printed posters to the government’s distribution of supplies for school reopening. The supplies are expected to reach more than 600,000 kindergartens and schools (including teaching sites) across the country benefitting more than 241 million children. The provision of printed materials with key information and tips on the safe, healthy and happy return to schools would ensure that the most disadvantaged and marginalized children were reached.

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UN issues global alert over teacher shortage

A teacher at a school in Ghana works alongside his pupils.

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The world urgently needs 44 million teachers by 2030 in order to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality, a new  report from UNESCO , the UN agency championing education, announced this week. 

The global teacher shortage alert was issued at a meeting on Monday of the International Task Force on Teachers for Education in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession announced a new set of recommendations to safeguard future learning for all.

Quality education for ‘learning societies’

“ Now, more than ever, we need to move towards learning societies . People everywhere need high-quality skills, knowledge and education. Above all, they need the best teachers possible,” UN chief António Guterres said in his  video message to the forum .

UNESCO points out that seven out of 10 teachers at the secondary level will need to be replaced by 2030, along with over half of all existing teachers who will have left the profession by the decade’s end.

Although it’s a global issue, the teacher shortage is impacting sub-Saharan Africa the most, where an estimated 15 million new teachers are needed by 2030. 

Teachers overwhelmed

The effect of a worldwide teacher shortage is profound, creating larger class sizes, overburdened educators, educational disparities and financial strain on school systems, impacting educational quality and access.

Building on the landmark  UN Summit on Transforming Education in 2022 and supported jointly by the International Labour Organization ( ILO ) and UNESCO, the high-level panel’s recommendations are focused on core aspects: dignity, humanity, diversity, equity and inclusion, quality, sustainability, innovation and leadership.

Support to educators

“ Just as teachers support us all, it’s time to support teachers. Let’s make sure they have the support, recognition and resources they need to provide quality, relevant education and skills for all,” the Secretary-General said, advocating for the wide implementation of the guidelines produced by the education experts. 

Responses to the challenge include recommendations to cultivate an environment where teachers can drive educational change, foster critical thinking and promote modern learning skills. 

The panel advocates for teachers as collaborative partners rather than mere purveyors of knowledge. Adequate funding for education systems and technology integration are key, with a focus on supporting the use of digital learning and other technology.

Financing the future

Attrition rates among primary teachers almost doubled from 4.62 per cent globally in 2015 to 9.06 in 2022, with teachers often leaving the profession within the first five years, the report reveals.

According to recent estimates, financing additional teachers will cost $12.8 billion for universal primary education and $106.8 billion for universal secondary education. 

In total, the annual additional financing needed to cover salaries at primary and secondary levels by 2030 is estimated at $120 billion if  Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to be reached, envisaging “inclusive and equitable quality education" and the promotion of "lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

“Getting there means investing in teacher training, establishing professional teaching standards, reflecting teachers’ voices in policy decisions and creating national commissions to tackle teacher shortages,” Mr. Guterres said.

SDG 4

SDG 4: EDUCATION FOR ALL

  • Ensure all children complete free, equitable and quality education and have access to quality early childhood development
  • Increase number of young adults with employment skills 
  • Eliminate gender disparities and ensure equal access to all levels of education
  • Ensure all youth and most adults achieve literacy and numeracy
  • Build and upgrade education facilities to be child, disability and gender sensitive
  • Increase number of qualified teachers

Without additional measures, 84 million children will be out of school, 300 million students will lack basic numeracy and literacy skills and only one in six countries will achieve the target of universal secondary school completion.

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  23. Ontario education ministry to stop collecting COVID-19 case numbers

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