Approximately 1.6 billion children worldwide have had their education impacted by COVID-19. Due to a lack of necessary equipment or resources to guide students and families through the remote learning process, millions of students around the world still remain cut off from education.
Early evidence from the World Bank indicates that these outcomes may have long-term ramifications. Recent studies estimate an increase from 53% to 63% in the global number of learning poor, or primary-school-age children who are either not in school or unable to read at the minimum proficiency level by age 10. Later in their lives, these children could end up losing approximately $10 trillion of collective earnings due to their educational deficiencies.
In the U.S. alone, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early spring 2020 relegated approximately 55 million schoolchildren to their homes. Conversations about reopening schools posed many challenging questions regarding the likelihood of children getting sick and the risks of students bringing the virus home.
In response to school closures and the many challenging questions faced by schools and policymakers, Ruth Faden of the Berman Institute of Bioethics, Annette Anderson of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, Dr. Megan Collins of the School of Medicine and Sara Johnson of the Rales Center for the Integration of Health and Education all joined together to create the eSchool+ Initiative. This initiative seeks to create guidance for schools and policy stakeholders to consider ways to support students during school closures and reopenings with a focus on equity.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Collins reflected on the guiding questions at the roots of the eSchool+ Initiative.
“All of a sudden with schools closed, it was not only a question of how are we going to continue to teach kids math and reading, but also how we are going to continue to feed them and keep them healthy and safe and supervised,” she said. “In the U.S., the debate became, ‘When should we open schools, how should we open schools, how do we continue to support kids as we’re doing this?’”
One of the first projects conducted by the eSchool+ Initiative was the School Reopening Policy Tracker, a data visualization tool that provides information on how different states’ departments of education across the U.S. are constructing their reopening plans and how they are approaching equity concerns for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
According to Collins, the project began receiving the attention of international colleagues who were studying the global impacts of school lockdowns on education. As a result, researchers at the eSchool+ Initiative partnered with these international colleagues at the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to launch the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker.
This tracker focuses on displaying four key aspects of global education since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: the status of schools (whether they are open or closed), how education is being delivered (in-person, fully remote or hybrid), whether remedial education programs are available and how vaccine availability for teachers is being prioritized. The tool is meant to serve as both a live tracking tool and a record of events by providing information on issues as they emerge and on actions that were taken in previous months.
Collins elaborated on the elements of the tracker.
“A lot of what you’re seeing visualized on the dashboard is really focused on schools’ education modalities at the moment: are they open, are they closed or do they have kind of a mixed category?” she said. “And then we’re also looking at what types of instruction modalities they’re using, depending on what their school status is: are they using internet, a Zoom-based platform, TV or radio?”
Another aspect of the data visualization tool focuses on access to vaccination for educators around the world, tracking the extent to which school staff and faculty are being prioritized for vaccination.
Current challenges in vaccine availability for educators around the world include the lack of universal vaccine rollout and distribution. For example, the tracker shows that though the U.S. has ramped up its vaccine rollout and classified teachers and school staff as a priority group, other countries around the world have not yet, or have only recently authorized the vaccine for distribution.
The researchers at eSchool+ Initiative, UNICEF and the World Bank source their information from publicly available sources and by consulting UNICEF and World Bank country representatives who help researchers understand what the situation looks like on the ground.
The research team assigned each partner organization — UNICEF, World Bank and the University — a list of countries around the world for which the organization is responsible for collecting information on. The UNICEF and World Bank teams can utilize country representatives to answer questions about the situation on the ground in a particular country. Often these organizations also consult their specific workgroups, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) workgroup out of UNICEF.
On the Hopkins team, a number of graduate and undergraduate students are each assigned countries for which they are responsible for gathering public information from. Data are gathered through biweekly Qualtrics surveys, and the information acquired is used to update the tracker.
The point of contact for the Hopkins students responsible for collecting data is Rachel Gur-Arie, a postdoctoral fellow in Ethics and Infectious Diseases at the Berman Institute of Bioethics. Gur-Arie supervises a team of approximately 10 students — mostly undergraduates — collecting data through biweekly surveys on their assigned countries.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Gur-Arie discussed the team’s emphasis on displaying official, publicly available information on the tracker with data points acquired from official government sources.
“There’s a wealth of media coverage and a wealth of popular radio interviews and TV forecasts talking about the state of schools,” Gur-Arie said. “It’s really tempting to use those reports as a source, specifically because oftentimes the government doesn’t have the ability to react in real-time like the media does, but we really wanted to make sure that all the data that we post on our tracker is official.”
The tracker has exposed trends that are relevant to policymakers and educators seeking to improve education globally. One of the key trends displayed on the tracker is the exacerbated impact of the digital divide on global education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute has shown that in the U.S. alone, approximately 16% of all eighth graders lack access to a desktop or laptop computer, and this lack of access to technology is predominantly seen among students in low-income families.
Likewise, Collins noted, access to technology is not universal around the world. This poses challenges for educators and policymakers seeking to enhance students’ educational experiences in an equitable manner.
“As we start thinking about solutions to continue to connect children to education, you very quickly realize the challenges that come up in trying to do that, especially in areas of the world without internet access, particularly in many rural areas,” she said.
Thus far, the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker has revealed how many students have lost out on quality education since the start of the pandemic and highlighted how some students have lost out more than others.
Collins believes the tracker’s findings serve as a call to action for the global community to consider what can be done at the individual level and the institutional level to assist with the recovery process. She also believes the tracker will have long-term relevance, as the world is facing a long path ahead for education recovery.
“I think the recovery process for education is going to be a long one, and there are things we have learned in the past year about how to connect and engage in different ways than we have done previously that will hopefully help strengthen our education systems across the globe,” she said.