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Learning and Community in a Time of Crisis

As school closures extend, lessons from history and from around the globe can provide a path forward

April 16, 2020
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Explore the REACH initiative, which focuses on research, education, and action for refugees around the world. This article was excerpted from a collection of resources on the global reponse to Covid-19.

UNESCO reports that almost 1.6 billion children and young people are now affected by school closures. That means that more than 90 percent of children and young people globally are now facing disruptions to their education as a result of the spread of Covid-19.

The scale of these school closures is unprecedented, yet the nature of them is not. We find important lessons in historical and contemporary situations in which schools are closed. From these cases, we see that the losses connected to school closures are enormous in terms of interrupted learning, unequal access to continued learning, and social isolation.

Learning Lessons of School Closure — to Mitigate Loss

We can mitigate some of these losses and the unequal ways in which they will be experienced if we as educators, families, communities, and researchers focus on a few central lessons from other settings of school closure.

School closures reduce immediate harm

One of the hardest decisions educators make is to close schools. They make these decisions in situations when the harm caused by schools is, or has the potential to be, greater than the benefits. While these harms can be as concrete and visible as when schools are bombed in Syria or occupied by armed forces in Democratic Republic of Congo, sometimes these harms are less visible as in the current case of an infectious disease when school closure is preventative, aimed at stemming the threat of an illness that children have not yet seen or experienced.

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"The scale of these school closures is unprecedented, yet the nature of them is not. We find important lessons in historical and contemporary situations in which schools are closed. From these cases, we see that the losses connected to school closures are enormous in terms of interrupted learning, unequal access to continued learning, and social isolation."

School closures are typically longer than anticipated

Most people experiencing disruption as a result of crisis, such as conflict, imagine that it will be short-lived. The average conflict, though, lasts between ten and twenty-five years. Conflicts and pandemics are certainty different situations, yet they are similarly unpredictable. Experiences in conflict settings suggests that school closures and interrupted schooling are likely to be longer than anticipated and that immediate planning for the medium- to long-term essential. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now begins immediately to set up medium- to long-term strategies for providing education in settings of mass displacement rather than ad hoc emergency schooling.

Children need tools to critically examine challenging situations

When disruptions happen, we often speak of restoring a sense of normalcy for children. Yet even small children understand that there is nothing normal about our current global situation. In refugee settings, we find that children who learn about histories of conflict and reasons for their displacement are better able to cope with uncertainty, to learn, and to plan for the future. To thrive in the face of current and likely longer-term school disruptions, children need to understand the thinking behind school closures, including the science of Covid-19, the reasons for social distancing, and the roles they can play in preventing its spread.

Children need relationships of belonging and senses of purpose

Without being in school, where children gain from socialization and community-building, children need to cultivate a sense of belonging. Relationships of belonging are foundational to learning and, in times of uncertainty, they are even more important to sustain. Diaries of children isolated in their homes during conflict reveal shockingly similar patterns — children miss their friends, their teachers, and everyday laughs and conversations.

For refugee children who are often displaced from these relationships, we find that schools can build belonging by helping children see themselves as integrally linked to others, and connecting their day-to-day reality with sustained and future-oriented teaching and learning. Despite our inclination to focus on one day at a time in the face of current uncertainties, families and teachers must help children continue to see long-term purposes, connecting their present situations and learning to their ideas and plans for the future.

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"We need our teachers more than ever. ... When schools are closed, children need to know that their teachers are still their teachers, that they still love them, that they are still committed to their learning, and that they will work together with their families in new ways. Yet teachers cannot do this alone..."

Children need predictability to feel safe and to plan for the future

Children need new routines that enable predictability, which allow for children to feel safe, provide the scaffolding to think beyond the current moment, and enable children to feel hopeful about the future. In conflict settings such as Afghanistan, the daily routines of lessons and interacting with peers and teachers provide predictability for children amid broader crises. As Covid-19 forces children to leave behind the predictability of their school routines, families need to create new, stable routines for children.

These new routines do not need to be created in isolation. Providing education is often the first way refugee communities come together after fleeing from war or disaster, whether historically among Congolese refugees in Uganda in the 2000s or Syrian refugees in Lebanon in the current time. Teachers are typically the front line, pooling skills and resources to work with families toward shared goals of creating predictability, belonging, and hope for the future.

Teachers need large-scale supports and autonomy for individual efforts

We need our teachers more than ever. Each day when children are in school, teachers answer children’s how and why questions, they provide them with predictability, and help them build relationships and a sense of belonging. When schools are closed, children need to know that their teachers are still their teachers, that they still love them, that they are still committed to their learning, and that they will work together with their families in new ways. Yet teachers cannot do this alone, and there are many ways to support them.

In times of crisis, standardized and widely-accessible approaches are essential to help combat existing inequalities and avoid exacerbating them, even in typically decentralized education systems like the United States. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014, teachers recorded lessons on radio providing a trusted voice directly into the homes of millions of children. Over the past several months, primary school students across China learned via lessons broadcast on public television. Globally, online learning providers are making materials available for free and museums and libraries are expanding their virtual reach. Building on these models, governments, foundations, and corporations must join forces to mobilize large-scale collective efforts that can reach all children and keep them learning.

In addition to standardized approaches, individual efforts by teachers and families are key. When schools have closed in Palestinian territories, teachers distributed home-learning packets. Somali refugee teachers use social media to provide feedback on assignments to their students even when they are living at great distances from each other. Simple text messages or short videos can enable teachers and students to remain connected and build shared senses of stability and belonging that will take us through this uncertain time.

Crisis creates openings for new possibilities and transformation

Covid-19 has prompted unpredicted and undesired shifts in education almost all of the world’s children and young people. In similar settings, we also see that disruption creates openings for inspiring and transformative new practices. Teachers and families come together to reimagine education and, with the supports of governments, foundations, and corporations, create opportunities for continued and new learning.

Similarly now, we need each other more not less. Let that be our collective responsibility: to work in solidarity so that all children can continue learning, through a focus on predictability, relationship-building, and the skills and knowledge to address uncertainty.

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About the Author

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Sarah Dryden-Peterson
Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She leads REACH (Research, Education, and Action to create Change and Hope), a program that focuses on the connections between education and community development, specifically the role that education plays in building peaceful and participatory societies.
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