Skip to Main Navigation
Podcast May 11, 2020

COVID-19: More Than a Billion Students Aren’t in Class – How Do We Educate During a Pandemic?

Don't miss an episode! Listen and subscribe for free on your favorite platform – Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and more!

As the coronavirus has rapidly spread around the globe just about every aspect of life is being disrupted – not least education, which was already in crisis. That begs the question: How do we educate students during a pandemic?

We get the view from the World Bank’s Global Director for Education, Jaime Saavedra, who walks us through COVID-19’s impact schools, students, learning, and the solutions countries are implementing.

We hear from two mothers in Colombia as they try to navigate the stress of working and now teaching at home.

It all comes to you from the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC and from our colleagues around the world. Subscribe, listen, share, and review!


Paul Blake: Hello and welcome to the Development Podcast, coming to you from the World Bank Group in Washington, DC and around the world. I'm Paul Blake, and over the next few weeks, we're going to be bringing you a series of programs, exploring the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on just about every aspect of global development.

Jaime Saavedra (clip): We're living in a huge crisis. Interruptions in education process, I mean, something happened, there could be a natural disaster, or there could be a strike. So that has happened, but it has never happened at this magnitude.

Paul Blake: And first up in this series, today, the impact on education. As countries locked down to slow the spread of the disease, around 1.3 billion students are out of class. We're asking what's the impact on children and families as they try to continue their education.

Carolina Jaramillo (clip): In order to study, they're sending some homework via Facebook. But as I said before, the internet connection is really bad.

Paul Blake: We get the view from two mothers in Colombia, as the digital divide between rich and poor threatens to become an educational divide. All that and more over the next 20 minutes or so. Stick with us.

[Music interlude]

Paul Blake: I want to take you now to the Valle del Cauca region of Colombia, specifically to the city of Cali. That's where we find Carolina Jaramillo and Elena Rojas Rodriguez. Carolina is an office worker at a research center in the area. Elena works as her housekeeper. They're both mothers, close friends, describe each other as being like family, and are hunkered down together during the pandemic.

Now, despite their closeness, when it comes to educating their kids at home, they're living two very different realities. Carolina's children, 13 year old Andrea, and 11 year old Guillermo attend private school, and were able to continue their studies from home using video conferencing software. Elena's children, ten-year-old Sophia and seven year old Juan Jose are relying on photocopies distributed by their local school and lessons sent to their mother through social media.

I had the chance to speak with them one recent morning about their experience and what it means for their children's education. Carolina spoke in English and translated for Elena who spoken Spanish.

Carolina Jaramillo: Okay, I have two kids. One of them is 11. The other one is 14. And fortunately, they're working, they're studying private schools. So I think that the stress hasn't been so much as in public schools, because we have full internet, they have access to virtual classes through Zoom or Hangout or WebEx, I think it's called. And so the different platforms, and Skype as well. So they've had to have been receiving their classes by this different platforms. And they have homeworks to do after class, which has been quite easy for them in terms of it hasn't been difficult. Because as I said before, I have all the internet connections. The teachers have been very flexible in giving the kids time to deliver their homeworks and everything. So it has been quite smoothly.

Paul Blake: And Elena, how are your kids continuing their education while they're not able to physically attend school?

Carolina Jaramillo translating for Elena: Basically, that there was no internet connections. Whenever there is internet connection. In order to study, they're sending some homeworks via Facebook. But as I said before, the internet connection is really bad. And the other way is that they're sending photocopies to the school and they have to pick it up, but it's far away from where they live. So sometimes it's difficult for them to pick it up. And that's basically how they're managing right now, their virtual classes. But they're not receiving essential classes at the time.

Paul Blake: And Carolina, can you tell me a little bit about how this pandemic has unfolded in Colombia? I'm sure it's quite similar to the rest of the world, but when did everyone go into lockdown? When did the schools close? And how long was that then?

Carolina Jaramillo: Okay. The government of Colombia began to implement some things during the second week of March, where the number of infected people began to arise. And the kids were sent to home from the 15th of March until today. They're still at home. So all schools were closed.

Paul Blake: And I can imagine, as moms who both work, it's a whole new challenge, balancing both work from home and looking after the kids all day long.

Carolina Jaramillo: Yes and no. In my case, it hasn't been so difficult because at least my kids are a little bit older, so they can fend for themselves. They now know how to connect themselves, and they connect to classes and they know what they have to do. The only challenging thing is that I sometimes have to sit down and explain some things to my kids, because it's not very easy when they explain it virtually. And you can not raise your hand or say, "Hey, I didn't understand how to do this or this or that."

In the case of Elena, the thing is that she's working at home in my house and their kids live in del Cauca which is another department in Colombia. She lives in a small town which is like two hour.

Elena Rojas Rodriguez: [Spanish 00:00:05:20].

Carolina Jaramillo (translating for Elena): It's like around two hours from the main city of Cauca and [Spanish 00:05:23]. So it's quite difficult for her to go right now to home because she cannot mobilize herself to home. She has to be in my house. And the only person who is available with a place right now is her husband, which has to work all day as well.

Paul Blake: And Elena, can you talk a little bit about that? Has it been challenging balancing work from home, or work combined with having to also be responsible for the kids during the school day now?

Carolina Jaramillo translating for Elena: Basically she is asking for the kids to send a copy via WhatsApp of the homework that they're leaving them. And she's trying to help them that way. You know, once she receives a copy, she tries to teach the kids and say, "Hey, I can help you with this and this and that." And, yeah, try to do your homework with the little ones, especially with the little ones.

Paul Blake: A question for each of you here. Do you feel that your children are able to learn as much or as effectively from home compared to when they were physically in the classroom?

Carolina Jaramillo answering for Elena: Basically, she's saying that no, and they're sending homework of things they haven't even taught them.

Paul Blake: So there's almost like a disjointed sort of nature to it here.

Carolina Jaramillo: In my case, I think, I will say it's not the same. You know, virtual classes for me is not the same, their essential classes, because the attention for them is different. Sometimes I see my kids with the ear phones and listening to a class, but they're not there. You know, even though they're connected, they're not there. So I think they have too many distractions at home. You know, the dogs, the TV, the mobile phone, other things which are distracting from being a hundred percent productive in school.

Paul Blake: One question for you, Elena. Do you worry that somehow your children's education would be sort of damaged or stunted by this crisis and that it's going to take longer to recover? Or do you think the kids will be able to just go right back into school and kind of pick up where they left off?

Carolina Jaramillo translating for Elena: She's saying that basically, she really feels that they're wasting their time, that their kids right now are not learning, especially the little one, which is in first grade, and that she would suggest that they repeat the grade again, because they're not learning right now. They're really not learning.

Paul Blake: Carolina, beyond you and Elena's experiences, how else are you hearing about students continuing their education and their studies in Colombia?

Carolina Jaramillo: I saw the news yesterday that there's some kids in very remote areas in Colombia where there's no internet connections, they're really poor, and they live in very bad conditions. The militaries of Colombia have a radio station near Colombia. And through that radio station, they are giving classes to them in order for them to at least be communicated and don't get so back in the education. So they were saying that they were going back to the years where some people received school by radio. And it was really interesting. And I think it was good to at least know that we haven't lost the importance of the education at Colombia.

Paul Blake: Elena Rojas Rodriguez and Carolina Jaramillo, two mothers living two very different experiences as they balance life, work, and now homeschooling their kids during the coronavirus lockdown. They joined the Development Podcast from Cali, Colombia.

[Musical interlude]

Paul Blake: Well, let’s get the global picture. Let's now travel a few thousand miles south on the Andean Mountain range to Lima, Peru. That's where we're joined by Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank's Global Director for Education and his country's former Education Minister. I started by asking him to characterize the moment we're living in and what it means for education.

Jaime Saavedra: So interruptions in the education process, I mean, something happen, there could be a natural disaster, there could be a strike. So that has happened, but it has never happened in this magnitude, globally. And remember that we were already living a learning crisis pre-COVID. We were saying that in the low and middle income countries, only 53% of children were able to read and understand a text by age 10. And in addition to that, now we have a long interruption in the schooling process. So that crisis will be deepened.

Paul Blake: One of the things we're seeing, I think certainly here in the US, other part high income countries is this relatively easy transition to online learning. I mean, have you seen the same in low and middle income countries? Have they been able to make that same transition?

Jaime Saavedra: Now, I would challenge the view that in richer countries this has been easy. I don't think it has been easy anywhere. If we go to middle and lower income countries, the situation is much, much more complicated. The fraction of students who will have our device and will have the bandwidth and connectivity that is needed is relatively small.

Paul Blake: That must create a huge kind of equity issue then. The haves and have nots of the internet become the haves and have nots of education.

Jaime Saavedra: Correct. So we knew that there was a digital divide. Now that digital divide is creating a potentially extreme impact on inequality of opportunities. So that's why many countries, what they are thinking is a multi-platform approach to remote learning. We need to be very creative, use all possible means, but with that idea that we need to reach everyone.

Paul Blake: Jaime, you've written a blog on the World Bank website. And in that, one point you raise is student dropout rate. Explain the dropout concern here.

Jaime Saavedra: Students, particularly secondary education students or students who are attending now tertiary education, will not come back to the system, will not come back to the system because this is going to be a huge economic shock. So families might not have resources, or some will have to resort to work. Others will, just the fact that they are disconnected for such a long time, and might've been students who were in the brink of dropping out, then they will.

Paul Blake: Now the sudden stop of schools is also having some knock on effects that we might not immediately think about. What happens to the students who depend on schools for food? Can you talk a little bit about the nutritional impact of the school stoppage, and just how big of a concern that is for you?

Jaime Saavedra: The last numbers that I've seen is about 300 million children who receive their main meal at school. And that has been suddenly interrupted. So, many countries are trying to find ways of compensating that either through cash transfer programs or trying to make sure that they can receive that food through different other mechanisms, even sending it at an at home. But that is something that countries should emphasize.

Paul Blake: There's been a lot of concern about recessions and that sort of thing. How quickly do you think global education will recover after the pandemic passes or the worst of the pandemic globally passes?

Jaime Saavedra: First of all, there's going to be a squeeze in public budgets in general. And we have seen in other crises that that might have an impact by own social sector expenditures, including education. At the same time, you will have or the families will have less resources to invest in education, either in tertiary education or in the cases in which you still have to pay fees. I mean, there will be lower disposable income, and education might suffer. Third, in that same context in which public budgets are going to be squeezed, in many countries, you are going to see a shift of enrollments from private sector to the public sector though which is free, because families will not have resources to pay for private education in those countries in which there is a sizable share of private education.

Paul Blake: Jaime, we've, over the past few minutes, laid out in a fairly bleak picture for education around the world in the wake of the pandemic. Now, there is some signs of hope. The World Bank has recently announced this kind of large scale financial support package, up to $160 billion in financial support for countries fighting the pandemic, over 15 months. Can you talk a little bit about what the education team is doing to support countries in the face of the pandemic?

Jaime Saavedra: So at this stage, the main support to countries and the world that all our teams are really focused on is on the coping strategies. A lot working precisely in that design and technical assistance related to, and support related to designing and implementing those remote learning multi-platform strategies that we were talking before. Things will start shifting as time passes. I mean, more focus on scholarships, on a demand side interventions, and then support countries in that recovery phase.

Paul Blake: Jaime Saavedra is the World Bank's Global Director for Education. And he spoke to the Development Podcast from his home in Lima, Peru.

[Music interlude]

Paul Blake: So as we wrap up, I just wanted to say a quick but big thanks to all of you out there listening. We know these are weird and often difficult times, and we hope that this podcast is helping you make some sense of all that is happening. Of course, as always, we really do welcome your thoughts. Email us at

And finally, you may have noticed that Raka is away this week. There's nothing to worry about there. She's healthy and well, just taking a few days off, and she'll be back with us very soon. Until next time, stay healthy, stay safe. We'll see you soon. Goodbye.


Listen and Subscribe

Subscribe Button for iTunes
Subscribe button for Spotify
Subscribe button for Stitcher