Prioritizing the learnings and earnings of students amidst COVID-19

A conversation with global education emergency expert Dr. Prachi Srivastava

The Global Insight team
16 March 2021

Expert Q&A  |  7 minute read

How well do we understand the long-term implications of keeping children out of school? Should governments support non-state education providers? How should we approach policy planning to mitigate adverse effects of the pandemic on students? 

The Global Insight team invited Dr. Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor in the area of education and international development, University of Western Ontario, to share her thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on education. In the Q&A below, our researcher, Priyamvada Tiwari, followed up with Dr. Srivastava on some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion. The transcript has been edited for length and brevity.

We are living through a health emergency. What should a country prioritize and why?

Prachi Srivastava: I’ll start with two issues. The first is, I think, that low-income countries and countries that have had emergencies have a better developed mindset in terms of cross-sectoral collaboration than high-income countries. In fact, there are existing structures in those contexts which can be utilized.

But, the second problem of education systems is that many have systematically been under financed.

When we start a system or a situation where we have a surplus of resources, maybe there's a way of rationing so that we can meet other goals. And perhaps there are parts of systems, and perhaps there are parts of budgets, in which that is the case. But generally, overall, the case for education finance over the last 10 years has been pretty strong.

I think we need to really understand that there are functions within the education sector that actually have direct consequences for, or are actually closer to functions that are perhaps better met by health, that are better met by social protection, for example, and we know that health and social protection are going to get increases in financing. Maybe there's a way of thinking about gender, health, education and how can we plan in a way that supports some of the core function of teaching and learning, making sure that there are schools, making sure that there are teachers, that really needs to be part of education finance and budgeting. But, cross-sectoral financing will be key if education has more cuts.

Will the crisis be the boost that pushes digital solutions forward? Is it going to be the great divider or the great equalizer?

PS: It has the potential to do both. The issue is of a digital divide. A report that was done by the OECD shows a digital divide across all country income groups, which disproportionately affects lower-income households and girls. And, of course, people living in rural and more remote areas.

The other is an infrastructure issue and internet connectivity. Infrastructure is easier to resolve, I think. But the fact that the infrastructure issue exists, is more of a market problem. Tech companies just did not think it was worth their while to invest in some of those areas. But, I also believe, that tech innovation is going to change, especially for education issues.

However, we cannot assume that switching everything online is going to work for every kind of learner, especially for younger children, for children with special needs, and for first-generation learners. Just having a device doesn't mean that the device is shared equitably. There are studies that show that even if there is a device and infrastructure, girls tend to lose out on having access. I do think there are some innovations that will come out of this, but we need to think about open source and open access and free access.

A teacher and her student outside of his house in Indonesia
During the COVID-19 pandemic, to support students without smartphones or computers, a primary school teacher visits her students for in-person lessons in Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, where most schools have remained closed since March 2020.

We’re struck by the disconnect between proven high returns on spending for education and cheap borrowing available for rich countries versus zero or underwhelming emergency expenditure on education during COVID-19. Why do you think this is? For countries like the US where education policy and expenditure are devolved to the states, do you think this warrants a rethink in light of COVID-19?

PS: I mean, that's the question, right! Budgets and allocations are human enterprises. They reflect what we value, and it's not always a function of country income grouping. South Korea, for example, did a very different thing in terms of its education expenditure early on, before it was a high-income country. At one point, it allocated a higher proportion of its budget to ensure early universal access up to secondary. But, did other countries do that at the same time? No, they did not.

So, yes, we need to rethink that. But we also need to understand the urgency of rethinking in terms of the very shocking economic figures, macro-economic figures and the impact of COVID-19 on education and also thinking about what that means in terms of GDP loss.

The talk about cross-sector collaboration has existed as a challenge for generations. Can you talk about how these task forces and similar other efforts have contributed to more cross-sector collaboration across health, education, etc.?

PS: I haven't really seen so much of that. Where it's been highly politicized, we're seeing huge numbers in terms of cases. We’re seeing disproportionate health impacts of COVID-19, particularly on racialized and minority groups. In certain countries, those data have been suppressed. (In the UK) the Sage Commission was actually instrumental in making sure that the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Report on COVID-19 did not get suppressed. 

Sometimes we use the resource frame to justify inaction. But, there are instances from which we can learn. For example, Vietnam put in early measures to curb the spread through mobilizing action at a public health level, and also, looking at it in terms of the potential social impact. Hence, we don't see the kinds of impacts that we're seeing in most other parts of the world.

My feeling is that there was more uptake of early public health measures as a protection of the economy, and also, as a protection of social sectors, so it's just having that mindset first and then having structures in place.

A girl washes her hands
A student washes her hands before going back to class at a primary school in Kaabong District, in Uganda.

Non-state education providers are at the brink of extinction. What should governments do? Should they be supported? If yes, how?

PS: For the independent fee-charging private schools that are not being subsidized by the state, the primary source of income comes from the households. I think the fallacy of assuming this is going to be a sustainable solution for all has been laid bare by this pandemic.

We already knew that the lowest income households could not access these schools and the highest income households would not access these schools. Since the pandemic has had a devastating effect on informal economy workers, non-state providers of education will face dire consequences as well. What that means is that households are going to either make more difficult decisions about whom to send to which kind of school and for how long. We will see when research comes out from surveys/assessments on the ground.

We are also hearing of students migrating to government schools. Now this shows us how the government sector was perceived – as the provider of last resort. I think it should be the provider of first resort. I think we should look at our public education systems as true systems of inclusion. And the fact that they have become something other than that, is really a hollowing out of financing and resources over the last 30 years. The lower-income spectrum of schools is somewhat unsustainable. This does not mean that there is no room for non-state actor engagement, but we need to think about what that means for constrained capacity within government sectors, and that again, comes back to the question of finance and priorities and rethinking our budgets.

I think that in a time of emergency, we need to think about the most vulnerable and the most marginalized and where are they going to go. Delhi did an experiment last year. It marginally increased financing for government schools. And what it found was an immediate increase in achievement results and increase in enrollments. So, there is hope there.

Studies show that the COVID-19 transmission among younger children is much lower than that of high-school aged children. What did you find about that in your research? What practices and policies would you prescribe for different age groups of children?

PS: That's an epidemiological question. So, I'm going to preface my comments by saying I'm not an epidemiologist. My feeling on this is that if we want to look at school-level transmission, we want to understand three things. One, is the household composition of people who are going to the schools. We know that schools that are frequented by people who are in the lower socio-economic and socio-demographic disadvantaged groups have a higher rate of contraction of this disease than others.

The second thing you want to look at is the school-level mitigation strategy. What measures are in place for schools to be able to mitigate COVID-19?  A lot of it, especially when we're talking about public systems, is going to be dependent on the government. Now the good news is that low-income countries have had to think about alternative forms of provision for a very long time so, there are models. Then there's the whole question around mitigation within the school. What are the protocols? What are the sanitization measures? The WASH baseline study showed that 850 million children in 81 countries did not have access to basic sanitization measures and all we're talking about is soap and water. So, there's a whole question about how we could even mitigate at that level.

The third is the community level, which is very much around the broader community, the health metrics in terms of COVID-19 and in terms of infection rates, etc. What we need to do is to map that further and connect the COVID-19 infection rates with education indicators and with the equity indicators. So, when we do that, then we get a better understanding of transmission and we can also think of strategies to be employed. Some of the other strategies are reducing size of the cohort or class, investing in teachers, ensuring that teachers and other personnel are not shared across schools. So, when we talk about investment and resourcing, we really are talking about it as a public health measure strategy, which is why I'm saying, we think of reducing class sizes as a public health measure that will require cross-sectoral investment, perhaps.

Prachi Srivastava

Dr. Prachi Srivastava is tenured Associate Professor specialising in education and international development. She is also Member of the World Bank Expert Advisory Council on Citizen Engagement. Currently, Dr. Srivastava is working on the global education emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She led a high-level policy brief for the 2020 T20 Task Force on COVID-19, which fed into the G20 Saudi Arabia Summit, and is leading a brief on rebuilding education systems and equity concerns for the 2021 T20 Task Force on Social Cohesion and the Future of Welfare Systems for the G20 Italy Summit. She holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford. @PrachiSrivas