The improvised closure of hundreds of thousands of schools around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic led quickly and brutally to the world’s third great catastrophe of the pandemic period – to wit, the unintended and largely unanticipated ouster of hundreds of millions of children, at primary and secondary levels alike, from all forms of schooling, “permanently”. In other words, the mass closing of schools led to large masses of “third bucket kids”. (The first two catastrophes of the pandemic period were evidently the public health and economic catastrophes.)
What’s a “third bucket kid” in the year 2021? Answer: It is, in principle, a child who is neither in Bucket 1 (physical or classical school) nor Bucket 2 (virtual or online school). Bref, it is a child who is not in any school at all (Bucket 3). Full stop.
How did (or could) this happen?
In India, Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia, among multiple dynamics, mass school closures during the pandemic led scores of millions of children – strong and weak students alike – to leave cities and towns and return to their villages. Some boys and girls would quickly join the work force; some girls would go into early marriage. And so on. (Pakistan alone has ended up with some 18 million third bucket children.)
In Ghana, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire and many other parts of Africa, the same dynamic obtains. A girl could have been a star student in Grade 9, but when the schools closed outright, she returned to “real life” – as it were. She might become pregnant within the first year of closure, with no real prospect of return to schooling.
In Canada and the U.S., two of the world’s most advanced countries, non-trivial portions of the population lacked basic or stable access to the Internet (Bucket 2) over time. The move to “virtual” education, imagined as “seamless” by decision-makers in quarantine, led immediately to the ouster of massive numbers of children from all schooling – in the low hundreds of thousands in Canada, in the low tens of millions in the U.S. As economic resources and finances deteriorated in many households over the course of the pandemic, funds for access to online learning diminished or were crowded out. The ouster dynamic was amplified.
To the baseline quantum of “Internet access” ouster, around the world, we must add those children ousted from schooling, as soon as it all went “virtual”, because of abusive home situations, poverty, illness in the home, student disabilities (in all their forms, physical and mental alike, longstanding and incipient alike), and new-immigrant circumstances (with child and parents alike unable to understand the language of instruction).
A high school student who would go to physical (classical) schooling for the community, friendship, a boyfriend or girlfriend, sport, music or mentorship, goes online, only to be ousted (or self-ousted) from schooling that goes online but from which defection is swift (“frictionless”) and often anonymous – that is, it is merely a matter of switching off a website or computer, with teachers and other students not even being aware (and often for some time!) that the student has left school altogether. (The child, even in the advanced countries, may well have decided or been required by family circumstances to seek low-level work, but darker seductions and options also await.)
The ousted teenager, of whose ouster no one is aware, and for whom no one is looking, sees his or her position of ouster consolidate after two or more academic years out of schooling. There is little prospect of return.
All of these ouster dynamics will have been magnified several-fold in certain Indigenous communities or racialized communities. (For instance, negative past experience with schooling in Canada’s Indigenous communities, stemming from the lengthy residential school era, would only play into consolidating the ouster, or increasing the required costs of official efforts to reintegrate these students into schooling.)
In Colombia, just as in Lebanon, on top of Internet ouster, millions of refugee children (including those fleeing cross-border conflict or instability), of primary or secondary school level, have been ousted from all schooling through the closures.
But let us not presume that kids ousted into the third bucket during the pandemic are necessarily those “on the bubble” – as it were. In countless cases, these are the same kids who were on the football/soccer and cricket pitches but a year ago, in the ice hockey rinks, on the baseball diamonds, and on the basketball courts. They were in the parks playing at our feet just as the pandemic hit. Indeed, there are many “rich-kid paradoxes” at play too: children whose parents have taken what I call a “Facebook position” in respect of school during the pandemic – that is, that they wish their child to “take a couple of years off” of schooling while things settle down, schools return to “safety”, or life returns to “normal”.
Of course, that return to normal could well be 2-3 years away, at which point the child in question, of Grade 3 age, might not have even started schooling. Return to school at that point may be far more difficult than meets the eye: How does an inflexible scholastic bureaucracy deal with such a child? How to overcome the potential embarrassment of child and family alike about the child’s non-schooling? And what of potential legal jeopardy, real or imagined, for the family that has kept the child out of schooling?
What’s to be done? And can it be done, at scale and with urgency?
En passant, why the urgency? Answer: Because a child with no schooling (or almost no schooling) cannot do well in the post-pandemic world. Many – in the hundreds of millions – will die young for this non-schooling, or will live very difficult lives indeed. And yet the time window in which to “find and reintegrate” the third bucket child is very limited – for the child’s mentality and circumstances may well change markedly over the course of the ouster, resulting in consolidation of the ousted position. (Let us only imagine the high school/adolescent boy or girl who, ousted from school for two or three school years, is psychologically a very “different person” by then.)
Countries, regions and continents, for their part, presuming to “build back” or recover from the pandemic, in economic, social and strategic terms, cannot do so with any great efficacy or effect on the backs of brand-new underclasses of citizens and residents who are patently uneducated (to the surprise of many decision-makers themselves!).
Of course, let us also understand clearly that the quantum of third bucket kids grows with each passing month – that is, in many countries, every month of full school closure is now ousting large numbers of kids “permanently” – while each passing school year sees an entire new cohort of students entering the school system (let us say in Grade 1). If the incoming cohort is not integrated or the school system is not opened and geared toward receiving these incoming classes, the numbers of ousted students will effectively increase, and often by significant increments.
The Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic)
We at 21CQ launched the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic) in late January of this year with the express purpose of quickly bringing global profile to, and understanding of, the genesis, nature, scale and consequences of the catastrophe of third bucket kids; and then, with the results-oriented objective of finding and reintegrating these kids into schooling by September/October of this year.
Nearly 50 countries are now represented on the Commission by national leaders in education, policy, politics, civil society, business, the arts and sport. (The Commission does not get involved in the internal affairs of any countries represented at its table – period. We are agnostic, also, on the content of curriculum within the schools of countries represented at its table – that is, we are exercised only by the fact of a child being in school as uncontroversially preferable to not being in school.)
The Commission now, after a couple of months of intensive work, has a common appreciation of the problem at hand, across the continents, and is pivoting to “find and reintegrate” strategies, at the centre of government and, to be sure, on the ground, where the children are (again, often at our feet).
This pivot to praxis starts with the upcoming Global Summit of the Commission on Friday, April 16th. At that summit, which builds on recent All-Canada, All-USA, All-South Asia, and All-Latin America Conferences of the Commission (and anticipates our upcoming Commission All-Africa and All-Europe Conferences), the Commission will hear the presentations of find and reintegrate strategies for third bucket kids from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, USA, Canada, Argentina, Colombia and Jamaica. (Other Commission countries will follow in upcoming iterations.)
Commission members and, crucially, decision-makers from 50 countries will be listening in and engaging, assimilating, refining and, finally, moving to implement these plans at national, state and local levels in their respective countries, state, provinces and jurisdictions.
That is the aim at the Global Summit, and indeed throughout the (northern) spring and summer periods – to unfurl these strategies and, with them, massive ground games around the world, supported by high-level policy, messaging, social media and outreach campaigns.
To Find & Reintegrate – Five Working Principles
Let me propose five (5) basic principles for the Find & Reintegrate Mission and Campaign, across all countries.
- Speed & Mobilization: We must find and reintegrate all the “third bucket kids” – in all countries, in all regions – with speed, by September/October of this year. Why such urgency? Because, as noted above, the ousted position of the third bucket child consolidates with every passing school year.
- Scale: This must be an all-hands-on-deck operation, at all levels of the operational chain, from government ministries through to community and school levels, down to on-the-ground (even door-to-door) dynamics.
- Relationships: Well beyond slogans, centralized advertising or marketing, or even social media campaigns, this find-and-reintegrate work must fundamentally involve connection, outreach and direct contact and relationships with the ousted students and/or their families.
- Individualized Choreography: There may be individualized approaches to finding (“supply-side”) and reintegrating each ousted student, depending on age, circumstance and reason for ouster; critically, the “demand-side” of the choreography (i.e. what school looks like, how he/she is greeted at the door and in the classroom, and how he/she is supervised and mentored over time, for retention) must be well considered and executed.
- High and Low Game (“triangulation”): High-level policy and political attention and pressure – at national/federal and regional/provincial/state levels – must go hand in hand with local, human outreach, at community, civil society, school, neighbourhood and household levels.
A simple framework for understanding the find-and-reintegrate strategies, at national and local levels alike, divides the task between “high-level policy” and “ground game” dynamics, with each of these differentiated according to the age and circumstances of the targeted third bucket child (e.g. elementary vs. public school, Internet-ouster vs. other reasons, etc.; categories commended by Commission members Fred Lazar and Charles Ungerleider). This framework is outlined, in simplified form, in the figures at the bottom of this blog post, in English and Spanish (an important language on the Commission).
Phase 1 – How to Find the Kids:
By the end of April/early May, the “find” imperative must have become top of the agenda across all levels of government, national and regional/provincial/state alike, in countries in which the third-bucket-kid catastrophe has obtained. The Commission aims firmly for this catastrophe to have co-equal status with the public health and economic catastrophes, and for official political, policy and media messaging to make plain to the public – and to families and the targeted kids – that this is now a resolute priority.
Careful social media and media campaigns must begin, in the appropriate languages and cultural context, by the end of April/early May to raise public awareness about #ThirdBucketKids. (Celebrity involvement to spread and popularize the message is to be considered.) These campaigns must be extremely professional in order to avoid unintended or perverse consequences.
But the ground game, at scale, will be key to success…
Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the intrepid longtime principal of which is Nancy Rousseau, who sits on the Commission, has a retired teacher (let us call him “Dr. Morgan”), who sits in the school central office, 24/7, and calls “third bucket students” at home, relentlessly, to have them return. The calls are based on extensive lists, official attendance and board/district registration records.
These calls home are followed up/accompanied by home visits (knock on the door, conversations with parents and student…, to explain the importance of school, to get the child out of bed, to explain the “parcours” of returning to school…) to invite and urge the child to return to school.
Let us not forget the art of the invitation! A high school student ousted (or self-ousted) from school may, as mentioned, have been ousted from school (Bucket 2) anonymously and without anyone searching for him/her for two school years. He/she may well be looking to be “invited back” – that is, he/she will react positively to the simple act of being “wanted” (“someone cares about me”); after that, upon returning to school, he/she may quickly realize that “that is where he/she needs to be”…
Where are the third bucket kids? Past attendance and school records in most countries and most school systems should tell us, accounting for overlaps between districts and possible moves by the child between addresses. Some regions and countries will have comprehensive individual student files for each child (similar to a health record or public health card). Census records will be required in some countries. Others should be developing these as they reintegrate and seek to retain the child (see below).
But what about the doubtless large numbers of “interstitial” cases – that is, the kids whose status as a third bucket kid is not clear or known (perhaps not even to his/her parents, in some cases)? How do we find them?
Three (3) vectors of action are suggested:
First, students themselves will know, through friends and networks, who is “in” school and who is “out” of school. We need to speak with all current students, in person, to know who is in the “third bucket”.
Second, sports clubs, teams and camps (as well as arts, music and cultural clubs) have been identified as key “nodes” for finding and connecting with kids ousted from schooling – especially during the summer, when they will be looking for play, fun, friendship and connection. (Jamaican colleagues on the Commission have noted the special role of track and field in bringing kids together in that country – and doubtless as a mechanism to determine who is not in school.) As such, we must be tasking sports clubs, leaders and community leaders with reaching out and helping to identify third bucket kids, near and far. (We will return to the import of sport, cultural and musical activities as hooks to return kids to school.)
Third, in countries like Chile, as noted by Commission member Jose Weinstein, food/meal pick up and drop off for students and families has been a key “institution” (as it were) for maintaining connection between schools/educational authorities and children, third bucket or not, or, critically, potentially third bucket or not. Food, breakfast and lunch programmes (drop-in, delivery and communal alike) for kids from the (northern) summer onwards into the fall school year could, as such, be generalized vehicles for beginning to reach out to kids and families in order to determine who is not properly in school at all.
There must, in all countries, be a fair degree of very classical door-to-door activity, at scale, to determine who is not in school. There will be degrees of data triangulation and targeting based on various forms of information gathered from the aforementioned methods, but beyond emails, phone calls and high-level information campaigns, there must be in-person outreach to families and children who may be still be quarantining, unaware of school reopenings, or otherwise unwilling (or unable) to make the decision to return to school – among dozens of other possible in-home dynamics that run the panoply of the human condition.
Crucially, such door-to-door campaigns must not have any policing character. They must be led by trusted and trained community leaders who come with deep social intelligence, “street smarts” and an ability to engage, explain and persuade.
(Several states in India began door-to-door campaigns to find these third bucket kids in the week immediately after the Commission’s All-South Asia Conference. Let us generalize such campaigns. Let us now generalize this algorithm, intelligently, around the world.)
Finally, the role of school principals – school directors and leaders – cannot be overstated. They are masters within the walls of their schools (physically and now virtually alike), but they also, in the more heroic cases, play a central role in their communities, legitimating school, accessing a wide variety of student and family networks, and passing information up the chain to ministries of education and, of course, downward to students and families. They will be capital players, therefore, in finding the third bucket kids – not to mention, of course, their capital role (along with teachers) in reintegrating them (to which we now turn).
Phase 2 – How to Reintegrate the Kids
A logical question arises: Are we reintegrating the third bucket kids into Bucket 1 (physical or classical school) or Bucket 2 (virtual or online school)? Or some hybrid of both (Bucket 1.5, as it were)?
The Commission, for now, remains strictly agnostic on this choice.
I, of course, am on the record as preferring Bucket 1 to Bucket 2 in almost all cases – first, because it is a better and richer learning and growth “institution” than Bucket 2; and second, because the costs of, or obstacles to, ouster (to Bucket 3) from Bucket 1 are significantly greater than from Bucket 2. (The high school boy in Bucket 1, who may be considering “dropping out” from classical or physical school, in normal or non-pandemic external circumstances, would presumably plan his exit for some time, mentioning or announcing it to friends and perhaps even teachers several times before the fact – that is, several times before actually “leaving the building”. This would give multiple opportunities to stop, block or dissuade the child from leaving the building and schooling altogether. The family could also be contacted, presumably, to help in this process. By contrast, as discussed above, the same high school boy in Bucket 2 could drop out of virtual high school, on the current model, in many countries, by simply closing a tab, logging out, or shutting off a computer screen. The process is, as mentioned above, “frictionless”, often anonymous, and not “detected”, in many cases, for some time.)
Whatever we decide, let us avoid the lazy idea of “apps” as a pure substitute for proper schooling, Bucket 1 or Bucket 2. For real integration will require far more work and choreography. An “app” (or, beyond this, “Internet access”) may well be part of a short-term fix here and there, and there may well be a Bucket 1.5 to which the student returns. In any case, let us agree that the reintegration must be “sticky” – that is, ouster must be prevented from being repeated (including in a future pandemic or emergency; to which we turn in Phase 3 below).
First things first – let us not embarrass the third bucket child in the reintegration process, and let us always conscious of the overhanging (felt) possibility of embarrassment, by child and family alike, due to having been out of school for some time. (Kindness will be key throughout. Let us greet them at the school door, literally, with warmth.)
Second, let us avoid scenarios of (real or perceived) legal jeopardy for the child or parents on account of the child having been out of school for an extended period. A parent or parents – perhaps especially in some Indigenous or racial-minority communities – might (rightly or wrongly) fear that they could face legal consequences for a child out of school for a year or two. Perhaps they fear imprisonment, a significant fine, or the possibility that the child could be taken away? The parents may well know that the child must go to school for his/her well-being, but the impression or fact of legal jeopardy could incentivize them to further keep the child out of school – that is, the child’s position of ouster is consolidated.
Bref, the reintegration task must reckon with potential perverse legal consequences, factual or perceived, in reintegration dynamics. This will require clear communication and trust-building with families (and kids). The same “street-smart” community leaders leading the door-to-door campaigns must be at play here as well.
Third, we must not lie to, disappoint or, God forbid, betray the kids in the reintegration process. We must reintegrate them exactly as we promise (and as per their expectations), and continue to supervise and oversee this reintegration process over time to ensure that it is proper and professional.
Fourth, we must be flexible in reintegrating the child, with the choreography often individualized for the child’s age, specific needs and circumstances (including cultural and linguistic circumstances) over time. The reintegration process may be swift or it may be protracted –academically and socially alike. Into which “grade” does the child return? What will be his/her curriculum? What will be the mix of in-person vs. online learning? What kind of support will he/she receive? What kind of mental health or well-being resources can be offered to the child during this process? What about individualized tutoring inside and outside of school? What about summer school or split grades (suggested by Commission member Fred Lazar), where needed? What about adding a full grade to high school regimes in certain jurisdictions (e.g. in the Canadian or American case, this would mean adding a Grade 13 – which used to exist in a number of jurisdictions)? And what do academic standards look like during this reintegration period – how must they be understood by the child, and how must they be interpreted from the outside (e.g. by universities, colleges, the trades/employers, and other stakeholders, including children who have remained within the schooling system)?
The reintegrating child and family must have a clear understanding of “whither” they are returning – in academic, social, legal and other relevant terms; that is, of their path – from invitation to full reintegration (and celebration of such) or return to normal, as it were. On top of the reintegrating child him/herself, principals, teachers (and teachers’ unions), families and, to be sure, other students and friends will all have to play a (choreographed) role in this reintegration.
Finally, let us assure students, parents and teachers alike that the schools to which they are returning are, both in perception and fact, “safe”. I will not go into specific vaccination dynamics in this blog, as they are variable and complex across countries and communities, but vaccination of at least teachers will certainly help to relieve Covid-19 pressures in schools in a number of jurisdictions. So too may regular in-school medical testing of students and staff. Having said this, it is imperative that the in-school experience of the child not be primarily “medical” in character – that is, the child is there to learn, be with friends and classmates, and grow in a dynamic academic and extracurricular culture and environment. The child is not going to school “not to die”, as it were, and principals and teachers ought not to presume that their primary mission is to “control” the child in mind or movement in order to keep the child or themselves from “dying”. This would be a very perverse understanding of a given school day. (Dr. Martha Fulford of the Commission has been particularly eloquent in articulating some of this logic.)
Let us therefore ensure that the posture assumed in the schools is one that is for learning, energy, friendship and kindness, growth and, it leadership so wills it, excellence.
(I have elsewhere argued that “excellence” is a far preferable posture to “safety” for schools in the post-pandemic world, where students will have to be better prepared than ever for a world that will be more difficult. Underpreparation for this more difficult world can little help them, while no preparation – that is, no schooling – is the least safe condition of all.)
Phase 3: How to Retain (Keep) the Kids:
Reintegration must be “sticky” – that is, the child must be reintegrated “for keeps”, permanently, with negligible prospect for repeat ouster under a wide variety of circumstances.
In the general, a critical lesson from this pandemic period and the resulting catastrophe of third bucket kids in the millions must be that schools should remain open in almost all circumstances and against almost all pressures. Studin’s Law, then: Do not close the schools unless there is war; and obvious war at that. (Indeed, many societies have, in the past, kept schools open and going even through wars.)
Bref, from a systems understanding, we must never allow for there to be a repeat of the current catastrophe of ouster should there be another emergency. For the rest of the century, we must minimize improvisation in the schools, avoid closures, and reinforce stability and, in the children’s minds, the strong impression of stability.
Now, at the individual level… How to keep the child in school once reintegrated?
Ideally, as Kirby Mitchell, an intrepid Toronto (Peel Region) high school teacher from the Commission has articulated, the kids should “love the building” (as it were). That is the best way for them to stay within its walls – physically (in the preferred scenario) or even virtually.
In addition to curricular flexibility and quality, this will require a continuation of the aforementioned individualized choreography, student by student, that sees the reintegrated child “embedded” within a vibrant scholastic community, supported by extracurricular life through clubs, sport, music, art, class projects, trips and events, and by social connections through friendship among classmates, and mentorship by teachers and students and community members.
Let me add that legal instruments should also play a role in supporting the continuity of learning of the reintegrated child. If many of the countries in which the third bucket catastrophe has obtained have “compulsory schooling” laws on the books, most of them saw these laws, and any supporting political and social norms, collapse during the improvisation under pressure of the pandemic. As such, these laws necessarily should be updated to post-pandemic conditions, with all countries, states, provinces and jurisdictions aiming to reinstitute, side by side with the laws, sustained public norms in favour of mandatory full-time schooling for all children through to the end of high school – an obvious public standard, it would seem, in the 21st century. (Let it never again be presumed that schooling is optional, including in emergencies.)
Phase 4: How to Improve the “Education Bucket” Altogether (Post-Pandemic)
The find-and-reintegrate strategies must be tied, inevitably, to broader “recovery” strategies for schooling systems around the world – something about which Commission member Robert Pianta has written.
They must also be tied to, although, urgency oblige, logically prior to other post-pandemic strategies like communications, transportation and social policy/supports, as noted by Commission member Costanza Liliana Alarcon Parraga, deputy minister of education for Colombia.
But can we use the find-and-reintegrate “moments” in our work to engineer a systems pivot to “even better” education in the post-pandemic world?
Answer: We must.
The work of the Commission in finding and reintegrating the world’s third bucket kids is decidedly “defensive” in its logic – it seeks to reconstitute what was, making up for setbacks of many years and lives in terms of lost schooling, talent and human capital. (I am not prepared to accept a “lost generation”.)
Still, this same work necessarily anticipates a future education system that is defensively stable (preventing ouster, under any/in all circumstances) but, in offensive terms, ambitious.
As I am running out of steam on this post, this ambition is for a future post. But let it be a critical line of consideration for forward-looking decision-makers around the world as they come to grips, with an appropriate sense of adult duty, with the third-bucket-kid catastrophe immediately before us.