Last month, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings, in collaboration with British Asian Trust (BAT), brought together global education experts experienced in reaching the most marginalized with education service providers in India attempting to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in a webinar. As the knowledge partner for the Quality Education India Development Impact Bond (QEI DIB), the financing structure under which these service providers are operating, we welcomed the opportunity to both provide a learning opportunity for all and enrich our research through the discussion.
Impacts of COVID-19 on learners in India
The webinar revealed how the pandemic and the stay-at-home policies, including school closures, have severely impacted around 320 million students in India. Though lockdown in India occurred at the end of the school year, education service providers in the QEI DIB have had to identify alternatives to in-school learning that meet the needs of the populations being served. However, in contrast to high-income countries, transitioning to distance learning in India is complicated given that only about 24 percent of Indian households can access the internet and only around 15 percent of households with internet access are in rural communities. Hence, these disruptions will disproportionately affect rural and migrant children in the program who have less access to technology and will likely take longer to resettle once schools reopen. Girls are also more likely to be impacted as they face the risk of early marriage and/or pregnancy. Furthermore, the service providers in the webinar noted that in addition to learning losses, the pandemic is leading to socio-emotional stresses on beneficiary communities and families due to income loss, difficult living conditions, and constrained mobility, as well as public health concerns.
Learning from past emergencies
Education in emergencies involves ensuring people affected by crisis continue to have access to safe, relevant, and quality education. Senior Fellow and Co-Director of CUE Rebecca Winthrop explained in the webinar that there must be a substantial focus on the cycle of prevention of and preparedness for emergencies, as well as the response to and recovery from emergencies. She also highlighted four lessons from previous emergencies:
- Health first. Mobilize education networks to share lifesaving public health messages.
- Long haul. Plan for extensive long-term school closures.
- Do no harm. Consider unintended consequences and possible responses to mitigate them.
- Build schools back better. Use the post-crisis context as an opportunity to strengthen school systems and develop more resilient institutions.
Alternative models of service provision
- Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI). Where technology is limited, IRI, which has been used for more than 40 years, can be effective at low cost and at scale for learners of all ages. This model combines radio broadcasts with active learning to improve educational quality and teaching practices building on local resources and knowledge. In Rwanda, for example, Room to Read is supporting the Rwanda Ministry of Education with staff recording literacy instruction lessons on their phones at home for radio broadcasts. Staff are also calling 40 families a day to remind them to tune in to the radio instruction and giving parents tips on how to support their children’s learning at home.
- Mobile mentoring. In-person mentoring programs can be shifted to mobile phones. Currently, in the face of COVID-19, Room to Read social mobilizers are using mobile technology to provide individual mentoring to girls. Social mobilizers provide crucial emotional support to girls through these difficult times, encourage continuing academic study at home, and ensure girls have access to information on staying safe. They have adapted risk and response protocols to support mobile outreach and help identify girls at risk of not returning to school.
- Online and mobile learning. Online learning platforms can include read-alouds, digital books, and other forms of online instruction. These can be used independently of government schools or in close conjunction, such as in a platform developed by Room to Read with the Uttarakhand, India government. Parents can engage via text messages that include instructional videos and can share progress with teachers.
Despite the barrier of not attending classes in person, there are many creative ways that organizations and governments are taking action to reduce learning losses among students of all ages. The discussion highlighted that engaging community leaders is critical to tackling both supply-side and demand-side constraints. Furthermore, identifying the needs of each community, household, and learner is critical to ensure inclusion across socioeconomic strata with a lens on gender issues. The service providers in the QEI DIB are likely to face considerable challenges in the coming months and perhaps even years, but it was clear that with creative problem-solving and the help of other organizations, alternative approaches exist.
- Dhun Davar, Head, Social Finance, UBS Optimus Foundation
- Emily Gustafsson-Wright, Fellow, CUE, Brookings Institution
- Heather Simpson, Chief Program Officer, Room to Read
- Rebecca Winthrop, Co-director and Senior Fellow, CUE, Brookings Institution
- Lydia Wilbard, National Director, CAMFED Tanzania
Participating service providers
- Gyan Shala provides direct management and delivery of education services in affordable community learning centers to children from the slums in Ahmedabad and Surat.
- Educational Initiatives / Pratham Infotech Foundation provides children from poor families in Lucknow access to a computer-based adaptive learning platform and provides support for teachers on data literacy and assessments.
- Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF) provides principal and teacher training to improve the quality of school leadership and holistic school development, supporting daily wage workers and migrants.
- Society for All Around Development (SARD) provides remedial classes to children performing below grade level and teacher training to improve capacity of teachers, working directly with children from families of daily wage workers, construction workers, drivers, and migrants.
The Center for Universal Education receives funding for its work on innovative financing from British Asian Trust and the UBS Optimus Foundation. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author.