COVID-19 and school closures: What can countries learn from past emergencies?

General view of a class room at a Primary School in Melbourne's inner north, Monday, March 23, 2020. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has brought forward school holidays as a measure to slow the rapid spreading Covid-19 virus throughout the state. (AAP Image/James Ross) NO ARCHIVINGNo Use Australia. No Use New Zealand.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, and across every state in the U.S., school systems are shutting their doors. To date, the education community has largely focused on the different strategies to continue schooling, including lively discussions on the role of education technology versus distribution of printed paper packets. But there has been relatively little discussion about how to take advantage of the know-how and good practice developed from years of work in the humanitarian and global development sectors.

Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege of helping to translate the disparate actions and approaches of teachers and program leaders on the ground into an established field of theory and practice on education in emergencies. Today, although the world has never seen a crisis quite like this, the field of education in emergencies has much insight to offer school systems around the globe. This especially applies to school districts across the U.S., the vast majority of which have never closed for such extended periods of time.

The scope of COVID-19-related school closures is unprecedented in history

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is tracking the impact of the pandemic on education. As of March 30, they estimate that 87 percent of the world’s students⁠—that is 1.5 billion learners⁠—have been affected by school closures. The bulk of these students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, but there are also millions of students affected at the pre-primary and tertiary education levels. More than 180 countries have shut school doors nationwide, while others have implemented localized school closures. In the U.S., while a nationwide shut down has not occurred, 50 states and U.S. territories have closed their schools.

COVID-19 public health messages and training should be immediately deployed consistently through education activities.

In recent decades, crisis has disrupted education in individual countries or regions mainly due to natural disasters, armed conflict, or occasionally epidemics. For example, the 2010 floods in Pakistan that washed away homes and crops in one-fifth of the country affected 20 million people, many of them children and youth. Schools across the affected region were closed and converted into temporary shelters for communities. In the Middle East, at least 2.8 million Syrian children have been out of school for some period during the last decade, and 5 million children were out of school in the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa starting in 2013.

But even compared to school closures during global crises—such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic where 40 U.S. cities closed schools, and World War II where in the UK one million children were out of school—the level of education disruption is much greater today. This is in part because over the last 50 years school has become a central feature to childhood—not only educating children but acting as the largest national childcare scheme⁠—in virtually every country in the world. Today, 90 percent of the world’s young people are enrolled in primary school now compared to 40 percent in 1920.

What is the education in emergencies field?

Despite this unprecedented situation, there is a useful body of knowledge on schooling during prolonged crises. Over the last 20 years, “education in emergencies” has coalesced as a field of research and practice led by practitioners and academics working in humanitarian aid and global development. During this time, standards of practice have been developed, including technical guidance, new research programs and college courses, a global fund for education in emergencies, and academic journals.

Education in emergencies refers broadly to ensuring people affected by emergencies and crises—no matter the type or source of the crisis⁠—have access to safe, relevant, and quality education. This includes focusing on the cycle of prevention of and preparedness for emergencies, as well as the response to and recovery from emergencies.

Central to this field is a set of global standards that were developed in 2004 by the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). These INEE Minimum Standards were developed based on a combination of practitioner know-how and academic evidence and are frequently used to respond to crises in low- and middle-income countries often characterized by displaced populations and destroyed infrastructure.

Despite these differences with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the education in emergencies community can offer lessons learned and good practices in almost any case where education is disrupted for a protracted period. Below I have highlighted four such lessons.

#1: Mobilize education networks to disseminate life-saving public health messages

In the early stages of emergencies, it is important to quickly restart educational activities by gathering children and youth each day for many reasons, including to disseminate crucial life-saving health and safety messages.

These early education activities look different in each setting. In the early stages of the Darfur crisis in Sudan, children led by an adult volunteer gathered regularly under a tree or jerry-rigged tent to sing songs, play games, and learn how to stay safe in a new environment. To mitigate the very real risk of cholera, everyone in the community had to learn where safe water was, where defecation should occur, and how to correctly wash their hands. Children regularly practiced these behaviors and became ambassadors for their families.

Many countries that have closed schools today are moving to some form of remote learning—whether by printed materials, radio programs, or online learning—with a global coalition forming to help provide guidance and support. COVID-19 public health messages and training should be immediately deployed consistently through education activities. This is surprisingly missing from many of the educational responses to this crisis. In the U.S., for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide a range of guidance on how to disinfect schools, how to assess when to close schools, what to do when a member of the school has contracted COVID-19, and even how to continue education through distance learning. But they stop short on providing accompanying educational materials for how schools can actively participate in national COVID-19 public health campaigns.

This takes leadership from the public health community and in no way should individual teachers or schools be burdened with developing the public health messages or materials. In the U.S. for example, the public health community should immediately partner with school districts across the U.S. to develop and disseminate age-appropriate teaching and learning materials on topics such as handwashing, remaining a safe distance from others, and coughing into elbows. These types of messages should be regularly disseminated, and updated when needed, to education networks. Schools have long been vehicles to spread public health information, such as in the campaign to stop smoking in the U.S. In this crisis, it is likely that public health messages will make it from the lesson book to the dinner table, as parents are much closer to children’s learning.

#2: Plan for school closures to last months, not weeks

If there is one thing that I have learned from my work in the education in emergencies field, it is that returning to the precrisis routine of schooling always takes much longer than you think. Today, schools in many countries have closed initially for weeks, with deadlines being regularly extended. In the U.S., only a handful of states, like Virginia and Kansas, have already stated they would not reopen this academic year. It is very likely school closures will last months, not weeks, and the sooner the education community can acknowledge this and prepare a longer-term response, the better.

As school administrators and educators plan remote learning activities, they need to find ways that the immediate response activities can lay the foundation for reaching long-term goals.

The Ebola epidemic that closed schools across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is, in educational terms, a useful comparison for today’s crisis. Across West Africa, schools were closed not because they were destroyed due to disaster or war but to stem the spread of the Ebola virus. Families and children were not displaced from their communities but confined at home with social distancing and other behavior changes required.

In the case of Ebola, schools were closed between five and eight months. To return to precrisis schooling routines, schools were decontaminated systematically once the epidemic was under control. This was especially important in the many schools that were used as holding centers for Ebola patients. Teachers and school administrators were trained on proper monitoring and prevention measures, including taking students’ temperatures each day and requiring they properly wash their hands upon entering and leaving the building.

A 1999, highly influential UNICEF report argued that in crisis, education activities should not be designed as short-term stopgap measures but rather as rapid response activities with longer-term development goals. This principle still holds true today, and if taken seriously, can help the education community better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It means that as school administrators and educators plan remote learning activities, they need to find ways that the immediate response activities can lay the foundation for reaching long-term goals.

#3: Consider unintended consequences and find ways to mitigate them

Continuity of education is one of the most broad-reaching activities to support children’s resilience and well-being and reduce anxiety during an emergency. However, not all children will need individualized mental health support, and indeed this is rarely feasible. For the majority of children, ensuring continuity of safe and appropriate education and other basic social services is enough to help them adjust to the new normal. The humanitarian guidelines for supporting mental health and psychosocial well-being advise a multilayered approach with all young people receiving education, supplemented by specific programs for vulnerable children and youth.

Good intentions can go very wrong if the potential risks related to design and delivery of humanitarian aid are not carefully thought through.

If done well, educational activities can provide a routine that gives young people a sense of stability amid rapid change. This is an important part of helping children process and adjust to their changing external environment and develop new strategies for coping. The safety and public health information usually shared through education activities, as discussed above, can demystify the crisis and help children feel more in control of their environment. During long-lasting crises, education also provides hope for a better future, an important feature of supporting natural resilience.

To reap these benefits, however, it is essential that education activities are safe, appropriate, and inclusive. Times of crisis exacerbate inequality and the principle of “do no harm” is an imperative that any actions not cause negative impacts. Taking inspiration from the Hippocratic Oath in medical practice, it was developed in the humanitarian sector starting in the late 1990s due to increasing recognition of the drastic negative consequences humanitarian aid could have if not done well. This increasing awareness came on the heels of the Rwandan genocide where humanitarian aid—from shelter and protection to food and goods⁠—was weaponized to continue the atrocities. In less extreme cases, where emergency assistance has been distributed unequally and unintentionally privileges one group over another (e.g., refugees versus host community members), it can lead to division and discord and sometimes violence. In some cases, the way in which emergency food aid has been distributed has put women and girls at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. These examples illustrate how good intentions can go very wrong if the potential risks related to design and delivery are not carefully thought through.

It is imperative for school systems impacted by COVID-19 to use the do no harm principle. This means pausing to consider the potential short-term and long-term unintended consequences of the proposed actions. One way of understanding what those risks may be is to involve, even if briefly, the intended beneficiaries of the program. Talk to students and families, especially those most at risk, about the plans and get feedback.

There are some predictable risks. One very real risk is exacerbating existing inequities. Today, for students who do not have access to technology, books, food, or literate adults at home, remote learning runs the risk of drastically widening the gap between young people with those resources.

Child protection risks occur frequently in emergencies because existing mechanisms for keeping children safe are either inaccessible or break down. Will children be at greater risk from online sexual predators now that hundreds of millions of young people are using technology to learn? Will it be harder to identify and support children suffering from child abuse?

Inappropriate policies not adapted sufficiently for the context are another area that predictably causes unintended consequences. In postwar Sierra Leone, returning secondary school students who had been in refugee schools for years had to have a government-issued primary school certificate to enroll in secondary school, forcing many students back to primary school. How will children’s learning during remote education be assessed, and how will that information be used to inform school funding and support? How will schools respond to that assessment, either by providing needed support for those far behind or allowing for more challenging content for those who have moved quickly ahead?

We will not know for sure all the possible unintended consequences, both good and bad, from this unprecedented shutdown of schools. But the education community must seriously think through the possible risks and try to find ways to mitigate them.

#4: Build schools back better

A central principle in postcrisis recovery is to take advantage of the moment to build back better. In education we have seen this principle applied across many different elements of school systems. For example, prior to the genocide in Rwanda, schools—carrying on the Belgian colonial legacy—openly favored Tutsis and discriminated against Hutus. In the post-genocide rebuilding, schools and the content students learned were dramatically revised. Depending on the context, there can also be new support for improved infrastructure. For example, in the recovery period after the deadly 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, schools were rebuilt and retrofitted with improved designs, becoming much more structurally sound.

Finding ways to build back better draws upon all the previous principles discussed and provides the education community with a frame for finding opportunities amid crisis. There are a range of possible ways that school systems could become stronger because of the COVID-19 crisis. One potential area is around parent engagement in education. Studies show that when parents are engaged in their children’s education, particularly through asking questions about what they are learning at school, students do better. This is especially true for children of low-income families where frequently schools struggle to build meaningful connections with the parents. Schools could build these meaningful relationships during remote learning and sustain them after the return to normalcy.

Another potential area may be around the integration of technology into education. Remote learning may force many educators and school administrators to get up to speed on what technology can offer, and this increased level of fluency could be sustained postcrisis to assist student learning (while keeping in mind the potential negative unintended consequences).

Many education systems will find that returning to “normal” will no longer be an option, which could be an important lever to catalyze system transformation so badly needed in many parts of the globe.

A final potential area could also include school systems themselves and their preparedness to face another crisis. If nothing else, COVID-19 did reveal to most education systems how severely lacking their emergency preparedness plans are⁠—more resilient systems overall would be a very good thing.


The education in emergencies community has many critical lessons to offer as school systems around the world respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Creative solutions that provide helpful immediate responses, consider unintended consequences, and lay the foundation for building back better could come from⁠—and be applied⁠ to—any part of the globe. Many education systems will find that returning to “normal” will no longer be an option, which could be an important lever to catalyze system transformation so badly needed in many parts of the globe.