The Covid-19 pandemic has had multiple devastating consequences for countries, systems and processes around the world. I have written about these in past blogs and explore them in a pair of upcoming books.
Still, if the public health and economic catastrophes remain top-of-mind and broadly “felt” (if not quite fully understood), nationally and internationally, then the third major catastrophe of the pandemic period – that of education – remains misunderstood, if not outright ignored, in its most pathological form.
It is this pathological form of the education catastrophe that, in my submission, has the greatest moral and strategic consequences for many of the world’s countries and indeed for the world entire, post-pandemic.
What is this pathological form of the education catastrophe?
Answer: The pandemic has thrown the world’s children, poor and rich alike, into three essential “buckets” – the result of improvised school closures around the world and, of course, the widespread advent of “virtual” or online schooling:
- Bucket 1 is those in physical (“classical”) school;
- Bucket 2 is those in online (“virtual”) schooling; and
- Bucket 3 is those NOT in ANY school AT ALL.
I simplify, of course, as the pandemic has also seen an explosion in so-called “pod (informal, bespoke) schooling”, homeschooling and various forms of “hybrid schooling” (combinations of online and physical schooling). The “school of life” does not yet figure in these categories.
If there has, apparently, in many countries around the world, been widespread erosion of standards, quality and school “identity” or “spirit” across the first two buckets during the pandemic (the result of an inevitable renegotiation of scholastic norms, in teaching and learning alike, on top of obvious public health pressures), the third bucket – that of “ouster” from schooling altogether – is a function of widespread “systems collapse” during the pandemic. And with this systems collapse, the number of kids who suddenly find themselves in the third bucket is now easily estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.
To be clear, the third bucket is not, in the main, an extension or logical continuation of a phenomenon that precedes the pandemic. Let us not rush to speak of increased truancy or even “bad kids” or “vulnerable kids” who were ejected (or self-ejected) from schooling, precursors oblige, as soon as the pandemic hit – in other words, kids who were “on their way out” already, as it were.
Nay, in the strictest sense, we speak here of a step-function collapse in schooling and school systems – for poor and rich kids alike; for weak and gifted students alike; and for elementary and secondary students alike.
The result of this step-function collapse is that there are now, across the world, hundreds of millions of kids who were in schools only a year ago, but who are now, in the near-post-pandemic context, out of school altogether – often for the foreseeable future, and often permanently.
These are the same children who were, in many cases, in our parks, hockey rinks, football and cricket pitches, and on our basketball courts and baseball diamonds but a year ago – perfectly “normal” kids, as a rule, whose daily cadence of going to school was broken (not “interrupted”), from as early as February/March/April 2020, by extraordinary events and extraordinary reactions to such events.
How Could This “Ouster” Have Happened? Whence the Third Bucket?
Many countries around the world will have understood or anticipated the dynamic of ouster in the event of mass, often prolonged, school closures. However, a significant number of countries – especially developed countries – still have difficulty “accepting” that mass ouster of students into the “third bucket” can have happened at all within their borders, in the early 21st century.
What do you mean, these countries would ask, that there are suddenly hundreds of thousands – or even millions, or tens of millions – of children now not in any type of schooling in our country? How is this possible? (The same questions are asked of these same countries by countries that have not seen the catastrophe of third-bucket children.)
The key move in the ouster, of course, is the closure of schools and, in many countries, the aspiration to move to online/virtual schooling.
In certain countries, and in certain regions, school closure was absolute, with no move at all to online schooling – typically because of a patent lack of electronic infrastructure (or electricity to begin with). Many of these schools remain closed to this day, and some have even disappeared outright. The students are ousted outright – that is, there may be no school to which to return, post-pandemic.
Still, many countries around the world did move, or aimed to move, to online schooling quickly (often very clumsily) after the closure of schools.
And yet, in most countries around the world, sizeable if not majority proportions of the population (from 6% in Canada to, say, 70-90% in in the least developed countries) do not have access to broadband (or stable broadband) or adequate ownership of laptops or substitute electronic devices. From this basic coefficient we obtain our baseline hundreds of millions of “ousted” children from time = 0, at the first Great Quarantine in March 2020. (Of course, many schools around the world have still not reopened since then, and many countries did not even have the resources or capabilities to stand up virtual schooling in the first place.)
On top of the baseline ouster from non-access to virtual schooling (again, if/where it exists), we have a panoply of very human reasons for students being ousted (or self-ousted) from all schooling during the pandemic even when they “start” online:
- Abusive homes
- Poor or very poor homes (with ever-diminishing resources and the advent of very practical, often existential material considerations in households; dynamics for girls will often differ from those for boys in less developed countries)
- Immigrant households with language problems (and therefore unable to negotiate the online world for their children)
- Indigenous households or racial/religious-minority households in certain countries
- Refugees in certain countries
- Disabled students or students with learning disabilities
- “Rich kid paradoxes” – i.e. wealthier parents who decide that their kids, for reasons of form, philosophy or fetish, or even perceptions of safety vs. non-safety, should “take a year or two off” from school (these cases are not to be underestimated)
- Exacerbation or amplification of erstwhile truancy dynamics
- Perhaps most pathologically, high school or teenage students who, having attended school, pre-pandemic, for reasons other than pure academics (social reasons, sport, music, arts, mentorship, community, identity), find the costs of (obstacles to) defection from online school to be small and, with time, ever-diminishing (or who find the relative advantages of non-school, including work or social seductions, to be ever-increasing with time) – i.e. they are “out” of online schooling within months of its start.
The list is far from exhaustive, but it is hugely representative. In poorer countries, of course, there will be stories of girls being married off early (or getting pregnant) after schools were closed, or of boys and girls alike going to work full-time, with no intention of return to school. School fees will become unaffordable for millions of students in intra- and post-pandemic economic conditions. And so on.
The critical thrust of this picture is that, in far too many (if not most) of the aforementioned cases, in scores of countries around the world, no one is “looking for” these kids, and there are (almost certainly) no strategies to reintegrate them into schooling as soon as they are “found”. Worse still, as mentioned, many governments around the world – national, provincial/regional/state and municipal/local – do not yet have a “felt” appreciation of the nature, scale and urgency of this catastrophe of school ouster.
Now, a number of countries – in Northeast and Southeast Asia, in Central/Western Europe, in the Baltics and Scandinavia, in Oceania and, for paradoxical reasons, in parts of the post-Soviet space – have not suffered, on any great scale, the catastrophe of student ouster from schooling during the pandemic. They do not, in other words, have “third bucket” kids as a significant demographic category. Why is this so? There appear to be five categories of reasons for such “success” (or, more accurately, catastrophe aversion):
- Robust compulsory schooling laws and norms – enforced by government and supported by society, even under the pressure of the pandemic-related health emergency [Germany, Austria, France]
- Near-total internet or broadband coverage of the national population and territory [Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Austria]
- Systems thinking and a better grasp of the possibility of (and need to avert) the “third bucket” as soon as the “second bucket” was introduced [China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam]
- A proper national mobilization capacity – that is, to fix any leakage from the first and second buckets, or to catch and return any ousted third bucket students to the first two buckets [Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam; also Israel, although Israel has had a more significant ouster problem than might have been presumed a priori]
- A certain national “sang froid”, fatalism or even “nonchalance” vis-à-vis the pandemic – perhaps a function of deep national memory and experience of far greater past national traumas [Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan]
Why the urgency in addressing the catastrophe of ouster? Answer: We must conceive of this catastrophe for children, individually and in the said hundreds of millions, in longitudinal terms. Where is the world going over the next decade or two? What will be the demands for survival and success in this world, post-pandemic? Answer: The post-pandemic world, at least in the short and medium term, will be more socially wicked, more politically unstable and more economically poor. Effective unemployment will be high or extremely high in many countries, developed and less developed alike. Social norms will have to be renegotiated. Weak and even previously less weak states will struggle to provide basic social goods across populations recovering from the emergency period the pandemic – and assuming there is no next pandemic or similar-scale international pressure round the bend.
So what’s a young person with no education – or severe undereducation – to do faced with not the world of 2019, but now with the far more difficult world of the coming years and decades? And what now if these young people are suddenly in the hundreds of millions round the world? Let us be direct: these are mass early death scenarios (in developed and less developed countries alike!) – mass early deaths for young people who were “in school” just last year, but who are, force majeure oblige, now facing a more brutal world with no or almost no educational preparation.
To be sure, some of these ousted or lost children will, through their own industry or great luck, go on to be distinguished professional, productive citizens and even Nobel Prize winners. But as a probability, the majority will lead difficult lives – even miserable lives, in economic, social and familial terms, with many dying prematurely. (If I may, then: this education vs. no-education breakdown among the young people of today – far more than income distribution alone – is the central inequality faultline of the world to come.)
The urgency to address this catastrophe, at national and global levels, comes into sharper relief when we imagine that a 13- or 14-year old who is, pandemic or pandemic dynamics oblige, out of school for two or three years, with few aware and no invitation to return, has an “entirely” different mindset and very different personal calculations at age 15 or 16 (that is, two years after ouster), when a putative opportunity to return arises. Why would he/she return? (How to get him/her back?) To what would he/she return? How to ensure he/she stays in school or even graduates?
Or consider a 10-year old, putatively in Grade 5 but ousted from school during the pandemic at age 7 or 8 (Grade 2 or 3). This would seem, on its face, an easier proposition for return to and reintegration into schooling, but the child may be too embarrassed to return (given the degree to which he/she would perceive him/herself to be behind peers) and could therefore self-deter (something to be overcome in the reintegration argument). Or new realities and calculations might have been made “for” the child, in many countries and contexts – most prominently, transition to work and labour (including to help materially struggling families). We return to societies of “Oliver Twists”, en masse…
Also problematic is that path-dependent scholastic bureaucracies and school boards/districts will, even when “aware” of the existence of such young students and the need to reintegrate them, will simply not “know” what to do with the child upon return – i.e. the school or school system will not know how to reintegrate elegantly and adequately, and will therefore create multiple “blockages” in the system, preventing what would otherwise appear to be an eminently solvable situation.
If there is a clear moral imperative to “find” and “reintegrate” into real schooling as many of these young people around the world as possible, with the greatest possible rapidity (let us say, by September 2021!), then there is also a strategic imperative to prevent the emergence of vast underclasses of patently uneducated citizens in a plurality or even majority of the country of the post-pandemic world. For such a vast underclass would (will?) make a fiction of all intentions and efforts to build a stable and prosperous post-pandemic world – nationally, continentally and globally. For now, this is where we are all headed…
What’s to be Done?
We at the Institute for 21st Century Questions launched the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic) this past February. The Commission now has leading representatives – leaders in education, politics, policy, business, sport, culture and civil society – from over 40 countries around the world; 50 by mid-March. I am most grateful for the deeply professional, energetic and intellectual porous engagement of all the Commission members to date – we are all seized of the catastrophe at hand and the urgency of the very practical mission before us.
The Commission has three goals.
- Profile: To make the catastrophe of “third bucket” children seen and understood as the co-primary catastrophe of the pandemic period, alongside the public health and economic catastrophes – that is, to bring acute awareness to the fact and consequences of hundreds of millions of children, in scores of countries around the world, ousted from all forms of schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic (and other destabilizing events nationally and internationally).
- Find the Kids: To encourage competent national, regional/provincial/state and local authorities, as well as school boards and schools themselves, to comprehensively survey and audit all cases of children (elementary and secondary levels) ousted from school.
- Reintegrate the Kids into Schooling: To urge all national, regional/provincial/state and local authorities to develop and implement strategies to reintegrate these ousted children into formal schooling with the greatest possible speed.
The Commission is strictly apolitical and non-ideological. It does not get involved in the internal affairs of countries it brings to the table. Grosso modo, the three principles driving the Commission’s work are as follows:
- Schooling is a Must to Survive and Succeed in the Post-Pandemic World: All children must be schooled to survive and succeed in the post-pandemic world.
- Strict Non-Interference: The Commission does not interfere in national, regional or local matters at all (including in federal countries wherein education is typically and primarily a state or provincial responsibility). We only bring awareness and provide framing support and advice.
- Agnosticism on the Content of Education: The Commission is agnostic on the “content” of education – that is, we are interested in the “fact” of education (as opposed to non-education), with obvious general encouragement of “quality” and even “excellence” as key for children’s survival and success in the post-pandemic world.
This last principle of agnosticism in respect of the “content” must be nuanced somewhat. For as we get into the “reintegration” of kids into schooling (third goal of the Commission), we cannot, as mentioned above, ignore that the “demand-side” proposition for these students must be reasonably attractive and indeed “sticky” – that is, they must return to a schooling environment or situation that does not issue before long in a new round of ouster (this time even possibly for different reasons that the first time). Will they return to physical (classical) school? Virtual school? Some species of hybrid schooling? A transitional or new type of schooling institution? Some new form of credentialing?
How do we ensure the student is not disappointed or betrayed upon his/her return? What does catch-up look like (even if it required a short, intensive period of study)? What reception does the student get from teachers? From his/her peers?
Bref, this means that there must be a deliberate choreography along the spectrum of activities beginning with “finding” (through ministries, school boards/districts, schools, communities, sports clubs, supported by top-line messaging and awareness campaigns through media and leaders), continuing to “reintegrating” and, finally, “keeping them in the system”. If the reasons for ouster from schooling span the entire spectrum of human considerations – rational, esoteric, tragic and comical alike – then the choreography must account this very human variety of circumstances, psychologies and calculations, including within countries and within regions of countries. (As some members of the Commission have already advised: “context matters”: primary vs. secondary school students; urban vs. rural; language, culture, Indigeneity, and so on…) And this means that the task before us is exceedingly human, requiring data and machineries of government, to be sure, but otherwise demanding real human intelligence, relationships and connection, mentorship and very classical on-the-ground outreach, mobilization, persuasion and invitation.
If no one is looking for the kids, and no one is inviting, no result can be obtained. Now, we scale. Onward to our work.
My next blogs will treat some of the Commission learnings and proposals for “finding”, “reintegrating” and “keeping in school” the “third bucket kids” around the world, in all their variety and, yes, in all their humanity.