Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from the research on education in emergencies for COVID-19 and afterwards

In our recent report, COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy, we covered the “education in emergencies” research, a body of work that is particularly relevant now to understand the COVID-19 pandemic’s consequences and guide our preparations for its aftermath. This research examines the provision of education in emergency and post-emergency situations caused by pandemics, other natural disasters, and conflicts and wars, often in some of the most troubled countries in the world. Approximately 50 million children are out of school in conflict-affected countries around the world—four times as many as in the 1980s—and we can expect that number to rise due to increased natural disasters and the growing impacts of climate change.

This fascinating research had, until now, gone largely unnoticed to us due to the perceived lack of relevance for guiding domestic education policy in the United States and many of our peer nations. (For those interested, see a recent summary of the research here.) But as we learned when we wrote our report, this research offers four lessons that can help frame the current crisis and plan for the rebuilding of our education system post-pandemic.

First, the research on education in emergencies is extremely clear on the negative consequences of these emergencies on children’s development and learning, not to mention the trauma and stress that some experience in the most serious events. Emergencies, especially the catastrophic ones that this work specializes in, lead to undeniably negative impacts on both educational processes and outcomes. Moreover, the most disadvantaged population subgroups often experience the worst—and longest lasting—consequences.

Second, providing some form of education to children throughout the emergency improves outcomes for children and, in some cases, to societies more broadly. These strategies, generally outlined and provided by international organizations, are characterized as flexible learning approaches, which reflect the reality that circumstances and needs vary widely. They all include some sort of continued provision of education to support both learning and the psychosocial well-being of students and educators. Some strategies aim at promoting cognitive, emotional, and social development through structured, meaningful, and creative activities in a school setting or in informal learning spaces that replace traditional schools when they are unavailable. So-called “contingency planning tools” help ensure that appropriate arrangements are made and offer a template for those in charge to assess the appropriate outreach and their effectiveness.

Third, emergencies strain existing resources just when they are needed most, compounding the underlying challenges. Research shows that access to resourcesand an equitable and compensatory allocation of them—help reduce the damage that students experience during the crisis. But this requires ample and immediate funding. Without funding—and because such emergencies carry long-term consequences—students, teachers, and education systems experience both short and long-term losses that can be detrimental for their well-being and human capital.

This leads to a fourth and perhaps the most fundamental lesson relevant to recovering and rebuilding our children’s education. From now onwards, education systems must have contingency plans in place in order to contain the negative impacts of emergencies on learning. Therefore, we must build up resources to be ready to adequately address emergency needs and to compensate for the resources drained during the emergencies, as well as to afford the provision of flexible learning approaches to continue education.

If designed and implemented correctly, these contingency plans do not force the prioritization of education over other pressing needs during an emergency. Instead, they ensure that the resources needed to address other urgent needs—health care assistance, food assistance, aid for individuals, aid for businesses, and extra funding for medical research—do not compete, as they have this year, with those for schools and children.

Following the lessons—ensuring the availability of flexible learning approaches, attention to learning, development, and well-being, and access to resources—would accelerate our ability to help children make up for lost ground as schools resume their normal operations. Doing so has the potential to render these losses temporary rather than permanent, and thus to reduce the long-term problems and costs of the pandemic. And, of course, establishing and funding contingency plans—the last lesson—will better prepare us for the next time there is an urgent need to switch gears in the education system.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have a first-person understanding of what emergency education scenarios entail. The research on education in emergencies provides a clear path forward to begin to mitigate the harm done and avert such harm in the future. And while we couldn’t choose to avoid this pandemic, we can choose to counter its consequences and to be prepared for the next emergency by following the path forward that this body of work helped to lay out.

This is the third blog post in our “Learning During the Pandemic” series. We will be releasing more blog posts on various consequences of COVID-19 on students’ learning and development and on the actions needed to recover the lost ground and lift children up during and after the pandemic. See these and other companion reports and blogs here.