Partnering with UNESCO to help school systems respond to COVID-19

In California, school districts are converting buses into internet hot spots for e-learning. In Denmark, teachers are moving music and other classes outside to gain the extra space needed for social distancing. In Gambia, teachers are recording and broadcasting lessons for all grades through TV and radio and have distributed more than 2,000 radios across rural areas.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments to shut down schools around the world, educators and policy makers have been experimenting with new approaches to learning: in person with stringent new health requirements; remote learning; and using a variety of hybrid models.

To help systems adapt to this new reality, McKinsey joined UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition to co-develop a practical resource for education system leaders as they work to ensure learning continuity and provide support, especially for vulnerable students. This took the form of a series of tool kits.

As the pandemic tests education systems, online tool kits offer answers
From left, Emma Dorn, Education Practice manager, and Nawal M'jahad, engagement manager
As the pandemic tests education systems, online tool kits offer answers

“Early this spring, as the pandemic took hold, we started work to understand the options for school systems in responding to the shutdowns,” explains Emma Dorn, McKinsey Education Practice manager. “We found out that UNESCO had a similar initiative, so we joined forces—bringing together our knowledge and resources with its in-country networks and expertise.”

The five tool kits help administrators define a model for operating during the crisis, set up effective remote- and hybrid-learning programs, develop strategies for minimizing dropout rates and ensuring re-enrollment once the crisis is past, and help students regain lost learning. They range from 40 to 70 pages and provide system leaders at the national, state, and district levels with fact bases and questions they can work through to create models for learning that best suit their context.

They are detailed, covering such topics as how to assess available physical space and teacher capacity for in-person learning; how to decide which age groups, subjects, and parts of the teaching process will work best in-person and remotely; and how to determine the best ways to engage teachers, families, and students. They include checklists and numerous case studies from around the world.

“There is no such thing as a best practice yet: it’s too early. Everyone is moving at 100 miles an hour and reacting very quickly, trying different things,” observes Emma. “We looked at previous crises, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola outbreak, for lessons learned and have included those.”

Nawal M’jahad, an engagement manager who led the project, explains that the disruption to traditional, in-class learning caused by a health crisis can sometimes offer education systems the chance to address more existential issues. "During the Ebola outbreak, schools initially used radio and TV for remote learning but then realized it also created an opportunity to improve curriculum content and engage parents,” she says.

Ebola also disproportionately affected girls. "While schools were out, teen-pregnancy rates dramatically increased within households—often as a result of abuse,” Emma points out. “During crises, we need to give extra attention to our most vulnerable students. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that might be students without internet or device access, students with special needs, or those who are not safe at home.”

While many administrators are focused on how to get kids back to school, what happens when things go back to “normal” following the pandemic can be even more important. “During the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, children missed three months of school. We found that, four years later, they were still one-and-a-half years behind,” says Nawal. “That’s why remediation strategies are so important to think about now.”

Once a school system sets its strategy, it can work through a variety of UNESCO partners to piece together needed resources, such as enhanced connectivity from telcos and health-safety guidelines from Johns Hopkins University.

In many places around the world, schools provide more than an education. “They support their students and their communities with social services, nutrition, mental health, and medical help,” points out Emma. “With such an encompassing role, schools can became agents of change. That’s the sort of thinking we want to encourage.”

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