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OPINION April 2, 2021

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education – Recommendations and Opportunities for Ukraine

School closures due to COVID-19 have brought significant disruptions to education across Europe. Emerging evidence from some of the region’s highest-income countries indicate that the pandemic is giving rise to learning losses and increases in inequality. To reduce and reverse the long-term negative effects, Ukraine and other less-affluent lower-middle-income countries, which are likely to be even harder hit, need to implement learning recovery programs, protect educational budgets, and prepare for future shocks by “building back better.”

At the peak of the pandemic, 45 countries in the Europe and Central Asia region closed their schools, affecting 185 million students. Given the abruptness of the situation, teachers and administrations were unprepared for this transition and were forced to build emergency remote learning systems almost immediately.

One of the limitations of emergency remote learning is the lack of personal interaction between teacher and student. With broadcasts, this is simply not possible. However, several countries showed initiative by using other methods to improve the remote educational experience, including social media, email, telephone, and even the post office.

Ukraine also implemented measures to support remote teaching and learning, starting with broadcasting video lessons via television and using online distance learning platforms. Organizations like EdCamp Ukraine organized online professional development and peer-to-peer learning opportunities for teachers to meet remotely and share experiences with online learning during the COVID-19 crisis. Ukraine also conducted information campaigns, such as “Schools, We Are Ready,” together with UNICEF, to inform teachers, administrators, students, and parents about the guidelines for safe and sustained learning under COVID-19 in the 2020–21 school year.

Unfortunately, despite best efforts to set up a supportive remote learning experience, evidence is emerging to show that school closures have resulted in actual learning losses. Research analyzing these outcomes is ongoing, but early results from Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom indicate both learning losses and increases in inequality. Alarmingly, these losses are found to be much higher among students whose parents have less education, a finding reinforced by a study showing that children from socioeconomically advantaged families have received more parental support with their studies during the school closure period.

These emerging data, which provide insights into the region’s highest-income countries, can also be used to predict outcomes in middle-income countries. Despite their substantial technological capability, even Europe’s high-income countries have experienced learning losses and increased inequality as a result of the abrupt transition to virtual learning. These outcomes are likely to be even more acute in middle- and lower-income countries like Ukraine, where there is much less technological capability and a larger share of families live below the poverty line.

Outside the classroom, learning losses may translate into even greater long-term challenges. It has long been known that decreases in test scores are associated with future declines in employment. Conversely, increases in student achievement lead to significant increases in future income, as do additional years of schooling, which are associated with an 8–9 percent gain in lifetime earnings. In the absence of any intervention, the learning losses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have a long-term compounding negative effect on many children’s future well-being. These learning losses could translate into less access to higher education, lower labor market participation, and lower future earnings.

To mitigate these challenges while also building a more resilient system that can withstand future crises, we make three core recommendations for Ukraine and other countries: implementing learning recovery programs, protecting education budgets, and preparing for future shocks.

1.    Implement learning recovery programs. Most immediately, governments must ensure that students who have fallen behind receive the support that they need to catch up to expected learning targets. The first step must be to carry out just-in-time assessments to identify these students and their support needs. Research has shown that 12-week programs of tutoring can help students make the kind of progress that would be expected from three to five months of normal schooling. In Italy, middle school students who received three hours of online tutoring a week via a computer, tablet, or smartphone saw a 4.7 percent boost in their performance in math, English, and Italian.

Ukraine is implementing learning continuity programs, including through the establishment of the All-Ukrainian Online School platform for distance and blended learning for students in grades 5–11. The project, organized by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science (MOES) and Ministry of Digital Transformation, helps teachers and students to remain connected, gain access to educational materials, and continue schooling during the period of enhanced quarantine measures when schools are closed. The platform contains lessons in 18 basic subjects and consists of videos, tests, and a compendium of lessons. Students also have the opportunity to track their learning progress. Even so, studies confirm that limited internet connectivity and access to devices for online learning (especially in rural areas), compounded by inadequate public support for distance learning, poses challenges. In addition to learning continuity programs, Ukraine could consider supporting ”just-in-time” student assessments to measure the extent of learning losses and identify the students who have fallen behind and may need additional targeted support to catch up.  Accelerated learning or tutoring programs could help address the learning gap.  

2.    Protect the education budget. Given the significant financial strain that economies have been under during the pandemic, some countries may face government budget cuts that could jeopardize the gains that have been made in recent years in terms of access to education and improved learning outcomes. To ensure a resilient recovery, it is essential that the education budget be protected and that the schools that need financing the most are supported. To help the most vulnerable students, governments should prioritize by directing much of the funding and resources to support schools delivering remote instruction, particularly if those schools are serving high-poverty and high-minority populations. To encourage students to remain in school, incentives  such as scholarships may need to be implemented. Yet learning recovery programs will not be feasible without substantial financial support. In the presence of budget cuts, affluent families will be able to continue to fund educational boosts like tutoring; however, lower-income families will not as easily be able to fill this gap. For example, the United Kingdom announced a £1 billion pupil catch-up fund that contained a portion set aside for tutoring and the National Tutoring Programme with a £76 million budget. Clearly, significant budget allocations and further actions will be needed to return to previous  levels of learning.

Ukraine has taken steps to protect and shore up education spending in 2021 by increasing transfers to local governments for teaching aids and equipment, providing further support and social protection to teachers and academic staff through salary increases, and implementing a new transfer to local governments for school safety and other measures aimed at combating COVID-19. Looking ahead, Ukraine will want to closely monitor overall funding levels for education to ensure that funds are being used efficiently and that resources are available to support learning recovery interventions, particularly for those students who most need them.   

3.    Prepare for future shocks by building back better. It is imperative that we not only recover from the pandemic but that we use this experience to become better prepared for future crises. To support this aim, countries need to build their capacity to provide blended models of education in the future. Schools should be better prepared to switch easily between face-to-face and remote learning as needed. This will protect the education of students not only during future pandemics, but also during other shocks that might cause school closures, such as natural disasters or adverse weather events. It will also create opportunities for more individualized approaches to teaching and learning. With this in mind, it will be necessary to develop flexible curricula that can be taught in person or online. Additionally, teachers need to be better equipped to manage a wide range of IT devices in the event of future school closures. Offering short training courses to improve their digital skills will help. Using the post-pandemic period to rebuild education systems and make them resilient is a priority. At the same time, it is important to build a future education system that can make better use of blended learning models to reach all learners at their level and to provide more individualized approaches to teaching.

Although this is a long-term process, Ukraine is already taking steps in this area. The authorities have developed regulations for distance education, and efforts are ongoing to continue to expand the number of schools with internet connectivity and access to digital devices and equipment to allow for greater use of blended learning approaches in schools going forward. Even so, “building back better” requires bold action and a vision for the kind of human capital Ukraine will need to grow and thrive in the future. It is critical to continue the larger education reform process that was started initially in 2014, including both the New Ukrainian School (NUS) initiative in school education and the reform of higher education in line with the standards of the European Higher Education Area. Ukraine’s MOES is preparing a project with the World Bank to support learning continuity and operational resilience in higher education through initiatives to expand digitalization in the education sector. These efforts will help higher education institutions to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 while also adapting to more resilient and flexible approaches going forward.

Interview originally published by Dzerkalo Tyzhnia in the Mirror Weekly