International What the Research Says

Schooling in a Pandemic: How Other Countries Are Doing It

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 24, 2022 3 min read
Children attend a lesson in a school in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has lifted the restrictions on schools in Russia's capital, students of all grades will to return for face-to-face education after months studying remotely.
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If necessity is the mother of invention, educators and school leaders around the world have had two years of inventiveness under the pandemic, spawning innovative ways to carry out instruction when schools are closed.

A new report from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization looks at how 11 countries approached learning during school closures from the start of the pandemic through July 2021.

The survey collected information from more than 21,000 students, 15,000 teachers and nearly 1,600 principals. The survey countries—Burkina Faso, Denmark, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, the Russian Federation, Rwanda, Slovenia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay, and Uzbekistan—do not include the United States. But the results provide insight into ways schools have provided instruction with widely varied technology capability and student needs.

As in the United States, schools across the countries dealt with widespread or universal closures in 2020, averaging seven months.

While most countries transitioned to virtual, socially distanced, or even broadcast classes during their months of school closures, the survey found 20 percent to 85 percent of students had no instruction at all for four months or more of the time they should have been in school. While researchers did not assess the academic progress of students independently, a majority of teachers in most countries said their students learned less and were more disengaged during school closures. And 40 percent to 80 percent of principals in most countries said the performance of their low-income students declined significantly during the closures.

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“The learning losses are real, but for the most part they are unequal,” said Borhene Chakroun, the director of the division for policies and lifelong learning systems in UNESCO’s education sector.

Across countries, a quarter to half of students who did receive instruction off campus had no one at home to help with schoolwork at least some of the time.

Differences in students’ access to education technology proved critical to getting instruction back up and running quickly. In the Russian Federation, for example, widespread school closures lasted only one month. In 2019, before the pandemic, the country launched a national ed-tech program which had developed guidelines for schools for setting up online learning platforms; training teachers to use virtual education tools and assessments; and expanding 1-to-1 devices for students. During the pandemic, the country was able to expand that program, providing free digital and paper-based lessons and learning materials for students and teachers.

“Many countries switched to online teaching. Of course, it’s crucial that the students actually had the devices to follow these types of lessons, and even here in Germany, this was a big problem,” said Sabine Meinck, IEA co-editor of the Responses to Educational Disruption Survey report. In lieu of 1-to-1 laptops, researchers found smartphones have become the de rigueur teaching tool in many countries. The phones were available to more than 80 percent of students outside of the African countries and more than 40 percent of Kenyan students. In India, teachers did the bulk of their instruction during closures via smartphone.

“It’s not only computers and digital equipment, but different countries use very, very different methods” for instruction when schools could not open in person, according to Dirk Hastedt, IEA’s executive director. “I think this is very interesting to see that different countries have also some low-tech solutions in the case of the pandemic.”

For example, while in India, the Russian Federation, Slovenia, the UAE, and Uzbekistan, teachers reported offering both on- and offline teaching for students who could not attend school, the survey found most teachers in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia did not do any remote instruction. Rather, schools were more likely to try to have students attend class in person, but vary start times to help reduce the number of students coming together at any one time.

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