Education in a pandemic: five messages that Australia’s aid program could consider now

By Reiko Take

After much debate in the media about whether it is safe for the community, teachers and children themselves to continue going to school,[1] the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria in Australia are going ahead with student-free schooling.

Whilst the symptoms and deaths of children from COVID-19 have been lower in comparison to other ages groups affected, how the virus affects children is still unclear,[2] and the global community continues to monitor the situation carefully over the next months. However, we need to not only prepare for worst-case-scenarios medically, but also for significant disruptions in education.

The scale of the challenge globally

Map courtesy UNESCO https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-emergencies/coronavirus-school-closures, accessed 23 March 2020 16:00 Australian eastern daylight time

Most media coverage in Australia is dominated by what is happening in developed and mostly urban scenarios. In urban cities with good communication infrastructure, schools and universities are already starting to move to online classes. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reports that as of 20 March, 1.25 million students were out of school and universities across 124 countries (see graph on right of the map above). Almost 90 per cent of students affected are between pre-school age and 18.[3] Whilst UNESCO and other education-focused organisations have called for innovative digital learning solutions,[4] is this an option where communications infrastructure is poor and/or expensive? What happens to students in developing countries if there are widespread incidences of COVID-19 and schools and universities are closed for prolonged periods of time? How does this disrupt their lives in the long-term?

Based on what we (partner governments, the aid community) already know about delivering education programs in emergency situations – there are five things that the Australian aid program could be considering now, in its COVID-19 response overseas:

  1. Schools are not “just” a place for learning

Prolonged periods out of school can put children in adverse situations that will have lasting consequences, and potentially diminish their ability to continue their education once school services are restored after pandemics subside. In both developed and developing countries, schools serve as not only a space for learning, but often a safe place for students experiencing poverty and other social vulnerabilities. Some students rely on school to receive a nutritious meal. Sometimes, school is safer than being at home – in Australia, a study shows one in six women experience physical or sexual violence, one in four experience emotional abuse, and more than half a million Australian who experienced this violence did so with their children present.[5] Whilst data on global numbers for violence against children remains difficult to collect, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1 billion children between the ages of two to 17 have experienced violence or neglect.[6] Being at school also protects children from sexual and economic exploitation and recruitment into armed groups where there is conflict and war. Where it is safe to do so, Australian supported aid investments working at household and community levels could be helping governments scale up existing social protection support for vulnerable groups to mitigate potential impacts of school closure (e.g. increasing nutrition and school feeding programs, sexual and gender-based violence awareness raising, and microfinance initiatives).

  1. The impact of closing schools will be borne unevenly by women and girls

Social distancing won’t keep girls safe from sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancies. This article warns that there could be serious long-term consequences for girls if they are not at school and stay at home during COVID-19, as we saw during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. In Sierra Leone, girls were subjected to sexual abuse from neighbours and relatives, and there was as many as 18,000 teenage girls who became pregnant. When schools re-opened, the government banned them from attending, and many missed university entrance exams.[7] CARE’s analysis of gendered implications of COVID-19 lists other impacts of public health crises on young women and girls’ education, such as increased caregiving burden in the home causing them to drop out of school or university. Where it is possible to do so, Australian supported aid programs could be working with education agencies and partners now, to consider how they can mobilise quickly and efficiently to bring boys and girls back into school – once immediate health threats have eased.

  1. Secure resources for teacher salaries and to utilise schools as community hubs

Unlike schools in Australia, where teachers are able to arrange remote-teaching or paid leave, school closures in a developing country would most likely mean no payment of teacher salaries. Teachers may then be forced to look for alternate employment for their own economic security and not return to teaching,[8] causing teacher shortages when schools resume. As Prachi Srivastava mentions in her blog, this is easier said than done, particularly in countries where education budgets are already vulnerable to being diverted to other political priorities, even in times of stability. However, as a leader in education system strengthening work and budget support to ministries of education in the region, Australia is well-placed to be holding vital discussions with partner governments to quarantine (pun intended) Australian aid funding and partner government national budgets for early education sector recovery, including securing teacher salaries.

Other budget considerations during pandemics such as COVID-19 are the extra resources required to get accurate information and essential training to teachers. Where schools are still open, teachers will require additional training on public health crisis management, including on water sanitation and hygiene and monitoring the mental health of students. When schools close or teachers themselves become sick and are unable to teach, additional members of the community might also require basic teacher training to stand in as teachers.[9] Teachers, along with the school community, serve as powerful hubs to spread public health messaging, so securing resources to support them is crucial, not only for ensuring education services return to normal as quickly as possible, but also for responding to the health crisis itself. While it is easy to concentrate all funding to a health-focused response, Australia and other donors can consider adapting teacher training programs to support teachers and schools to meet communities’ education, health and psychosocial needs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

  1. This is a time for innovation and technology-based education delivery (so long as equity and access issues are considered)

Innovative and technology-based education delivery is important and can be successful[10] – Australia is already funding these sorts of measures with great success – one example is Eskola, which is a tablet-based education initiative for principals and school inspectors to improve school management and education service delivery in Timor-Leste. But the best technology to utilise in times of crises are ones that communities and teachers all have easy access to, and have reliable service across the whole country. During previous pandemics like Ebola, radio-based emergency education classes were implemented.[11] Mobile phone-based teaching and learning[12] and radios are good options in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, where – until Australia’s support to fibre optic internet to the region becomes well-established,[13] and radio and mobile coverage remains high – internet service will continue to be unreliable and expensive. The Australian aid program should therefore be considering alternative “low-tech” delivery methods for technology-based education programs to ensure continuity in education service delivery, which will be particularly important in reaching remote areas.

  1. Think of the economic consequences

As we are reminded by the Australian media everyday, there are significant economic consequences to COVID-19, which includes the impact of disrupted education. When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate home schooling and have to miss work, thus losing vital income.[14] Student drop-out rates rise the longer schools and universities are closed,[15] which impacts youth employability and long-term earning capacity. The World Bank also reported higher general unemployment rates, loss of income, and lower schooling in affected countries after the Ebola crisis.[16] Taking students out of schools and universities can therefore potentially exacerbate this negative cycle, and can impact the resilience of national economies in the longer-term. While it is difficult to ascertain what percentage of Australia’s AUD450 million[17] committed to humanitarian and protracted crises (and bilateral program budgets) will go towards mitigating education disruptions from COVID-19,[18] in Abt Associates’ submission on Australia’s new international development policy, we argued that Australia should focus their sector investments deeply, rather than widely, on governance, health and education. These priorities remain the same as we face COVID-19 – because what is the point of surviving a pandemic if we are unable to then lead productive lives?

You can also find a version of this blog on the Abt Associates website


[1] See Fergus Hunter, “Why is the government not closing schools over COVID-19?”, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2020; Jessica Glenza, “Children and coronavirus: what we know and don’t know”, The Guardian, 19 March 2020.

[2] Pam Belluck, “Children and Coronavirus: Research fines some become seriously ill”, New York Times, 17 March 2020.

[3] Justin W. van Fleet, “Opinion: Education in the time of COVID-19”, Devex, 16 March 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-education-in-the-time-of-covid-19-96765, accessed 20 March 2020.

[4] Distance learning solutions, UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-emergencies/coronavirus-school-closures/solutions accessed 20 March 2020.

[5] Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019, p. vii – viii.

[6] Violence against children, World Health Organisation, 7 June 2019, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-children, accessed 20 March 2020. It should be noted that violence against children can also occur at school, but occurs most frequently at home.

[7] Nellie Peyton, Experts warn that closing schools in Africa because of COVID-19 will leave young women at higher risk of sex abuse and see higher rates of consensual teen sex, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 19 March 2020, https://news.trust.org/item/20200319115906-eieyl/, accessed 23 March 2020.

[8] Van Fleet, op. cit.

[9] Susan Nicolai, Education in Emergencies: A toolkit for starting and managing education emergencies, Save the Children UK, 2003, p. 96.

[10] Some examples include Digital Learning for Development funded by the UK Department for International Development, and projects under the All Children Reading initiative funded by United States Agency for International Development and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

[11] The impact of Ebola on education in Sierra Leone, The World Bank, 4 May 2016, https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/impact-ebola-education-sierra-leone, accessed 20 March 2020.

[12] Text messages to teachers boost children’s reading ability, Australian High Commission Port Moresby, 7 February 2014, https://png.highcommission.gov.au/pmsb/206.html, accessed 20 March 2020.

[13] Australian Associated Press, “Australia to improve East Timorese internet and naval base”, Australian Financial Review, 30 August 2019; John Kehoe, “Spy chief Nick Warner in Vanuatu with Scott Morrison shows China pushback”, Australian Financial Review, 16 January 2019; Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Coral Sea Cable https://www.coralseacablesystem.com.au/

[14] Adverse consequences of school closures, UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-emergencies/coronavirus-school-closures/consequences, accessed 20 March 2020.

[15] Ibid.

[16] World Bank 2014 – 2015 West Africa Ebola Crisis: Impact Update, http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/297531463677588074/Ebola-Economic-Impact-and-Lessons-Paper-short-version.pdf, p. 2

[17] 2019-20 Australian aid budget at a glance, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-20-aus-aid-budget-at-a-glance.pdf, accessed 20 March 2020.

[18] For example/comparison, the European Commission dedicated 10 per cent of its humanitarian budget to education in 2019 (EUR164 million, or approximately AUD300 million). See Education in Emergencies: EU announces record humanitarian funding for 2019 and launches #RaiseYourPencil Campaign, The European Commission, 14 May 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/echo/news/education-emergencies-eu-announces-record-humanitarian-funding-2019-and-launches_en, accessed 20 March 2020.

2 thoughts on “Education in a pandemic: five messages that Australia’s aid program could consider now

  1. Pingback: Education in a pandemic: five messages that Australia’s aid program could consider now – Governance and Development Soapbox | Knowledge Counts

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