Educational Opportunity During COVID | Harvard Graduate School of Education


The pandemic is one of the few events of this century that has affected education across the globe. To better understand its impact and to explore options to help mitigate that impact, 35 HGSE students partnered with education authorities in 10 jurisdictions ranging from Bangladesh to Guatemala to rural Kenya to Richardson, Texas, as part of a class on comparative education policy analysis.

Professor Fernando Reimers, and teaching fellows Uche Amaechi, Alysha Banerji, and Margaret Wang, worked with those students to compile their findings into 10 separate book chapters, available as a free PDF, that present the work students did with governments across the world, examine the impact of the pandemic on educational opportunity, and propose recommendations to sustain educational opportunity moving forward. The book was launched at the recent UNESCO convening of ministers of education in March and has since been published in Spanish and is soon to be released in French.

The work of the students represents a collaborative learning effort between the knowledge, research, and resources housed in a university and those held by education authorities and educators in classrooms and governments across the globe.

“In a nutshell, this activity helped integrate the three purposes of universities: education, advancement of knowledge, and outreach, in service of addressing significant social challenges,” says Reimers. But, he notes, unlike most academic work, the teaching team wanted to make sure this work was communicated broadly. “We took the extra step of turning [students’] policy analyses into chapters for a book, which required considerable extra work, motivated by the desire to make this knowledge accessible to others.”

In the middle of a global crisis, this work emphasizes the ways in which collaboration and compassion can help to shape and expand opportunities for young people across the globe. “This book reaffirms my conviction that universities have much to offer to building back better in education, as we face the current crisis and get ready to face the challenges of the future,” writes Stefania Giannini, assistant director general for education at UNESCO, in the book’s forward.

While each chapter takes a look at a separate challenge schools faced — mental health, attendance and enrollment, special education, and digital learning, among others — the authors found some overlap in the struggles educators and students faced, regardless of the geographic location, including:

Access to digital learning opportunities

Studies in Bangladesh and Kenya observed that a significant number of students were unable to access digital learning platforms created by the government or learning materials. In other contexts, a decrease in enrollment was observed.

Attendance, engagement, and academic learning

Even when students could access digital platforms, attendance rates declined. Students that did return seemed less engaged — for example, in Texas students did not often turn their cameras on and in Costa Rica, extended screen time, social isolation, and problems at home had an impact on engagement and learning.

Social emotional development

Remote learning diminished opportunities for peer-to-peer and teacher-student relationships in some contexts. A survey of teachers in Belize reported that 1 in 5 teachers did not believe students had meaningful relationships at home. A survey of students in Sinaloa, Mexico found that many students felt less motivated and more stressed during this time. However, many contexts including Quintana Roo, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Belize, and Costa Rica used this time to focus on building up social-emotional learning and mental health supports.

Instructional stresses

Teachers, too, across the board, reported readjusting curriculum, instructional engagement strategies, contacting students and families, and taking on additional teaching responsibilities. While teachers rose to the challenge, many contexts articulated a need for centralized supports, resources, and professional development to take some of the burden off individual instructors. 

Equity gaps

Across all contexts, the pandemic has disproportionally impacted vulnerable populations. Barriers to adopting SEL programs in low-income communities emerged in Costa Rica, students with disabilities had greater challenges with regard to technology and family support in the UAE, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds had a greater decrease in enrollment in Texas, girls in Kenya were less likely to return to school, and economic conditions in South Africa placed additional burdens on low-income students’ time. 

What Reimers, his teaching team, and the cohort of students hope is that the analyses and recommendations presented in this book will contribute to a careful reexamination of global systems of education as the past year has exposed the ways in which educational opportunities have collapsed for many populations across the globe. In the few weeks since the book has been published, it has been downloaded 4,570 times in English and 378 times in Spanish and has been shared widely in policy networks. An advocacy organization in Mexico is organizing a launch and discussion of the book for a convening of state secretaries of education and other education authorities.

Reimers hopes that the book will not only help education authorities think about sustainable educational opportunities, but will also serve as an invitation for more universities to engage with schools and school systems at this time. 

“If only a fraction of the students and faculty in the more the 30,000 institutions of higher education around the world took an interest in doing this work, we might be able to mitigate the damage caused by what is likely to be the most significant global education crisis in a century,” says Reimers.





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