By Celeste Carano and Kate Anderson

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing education decision-makers to address urgent implementation challenges rapidly and leverage their systems in new ways. In some cases, this means quickly identifying the most effective solutions for distance learning and implementing those solutions at national scale almost overnight. For some, the most important consideration for how action is taken is simply for it to be done as quickly as possible.

While the scale of COVID-19’s impact is unprecedented, there is existing evidence, including from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, that leaders and partners supporting governments should consider when developing their response.

1. Education should be part of the crisis response structure

Experience from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-15 revealed the risk of key education decision-makers becoming sidelined during the immediate crisis response. In Sierra Leone, the Education in Emergencies Taskforce did not include any formal linkages with health or other response structures.1 This prevented the integration of education needs into the wider response, hindering the government’s ability to coordinate horizontally.

One solution to facilitate integration of education decision-making is to ensure that education leaders are connected to the main crisis unit leading the response. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which is providing embedded advisory support to governments across Africa on the COVID-19 response, recommends that a small set of leaders, including the minister of education, participate in the regular crisis management meetings at the center of government.2 This can ensure the most important players are at the table when making decisions that will affect education. In particular, it can ensure strong engagement between ministries of finance and education, as the fiscal crunch the pandemic is causing has a real risk of exacerbating existing shortfalls in education financing.

2. Dual structures can be valuable, if connected

Including education in the core response structure does not mean that the center needs to become so crowded that decision-makers are unable to act quickly and reach consensus. A parallel education taskforce can bring together a more diverse range of perspectives, such as teachers and parents, to inform more detailed education response implementation and problem-solving.

For education ministries to communicate their actions effectively, this more detailed engagement within the education system is likely to be necessary. It’s notable that Sierra Leone’s decentralized education structure also contributed to a less coherent response through a policy-to-implementation gap, illustrating the importance of upstream and downstream communication and decision-making channels within the education system. 3

In Senegal, a dual center and education-specific response structure – which are linked and communicating – is being put into practice. The Executive Secretary of the Monitoring Committee overseeing the Ministry of National Education’s educational response and recovery plan is also directly linked to the National Response Unit leading Senegal’s country-wide response to COVID-19. 4

3. Cross-sectoral coordination is crucial

Engagement of education leaders is key because cross-sectoral coordination will be required to address the deepening negative effects on children. In West Africa, the Ebola epidemic and school closures resulted in an increase in sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and early marriage for girls. As former Minister of Education for Liberia George Werner and Rising Academies CEO Paul Skidmore noted, governments need to “tear down” walls to enable stronger coordination to meet these challenges. Education ministries will need to collaborate with health, social welfare, youth, or gender ministries and stakeholders to address these multifaceted issues and support students.

Weak links between health and education in particular are cited as having delayed school reopening following the Ebola epidemic. Governments aiming to limit the length of closures or to roll out back-to-school plans will need strong ties between their health and education ministries to do so effectively. Cross-sectoral collaboration between health and education could also create longer-term benefits beyond the crisis response. For example, stronger local coalitions and learning teams could be established to holistically support children with nutrition, WASH, and related needs at schools.

4. Partners should support cross-sectoral learning

Past experience suggests that adoption of new crisis management tools and methodologies can support a culture of data-driven and evidence-based policymaking not only now, but in the long term. But it’s critical that these lessons and applications are transferred across sectors.

Ministry partners can help facilitate these opportunities to apply and leverage tools and knowledge across government. For example, during the Ebola crisis in Liberia, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Health to adopt RapidPro, a data collection and monitoring tool, to report cases and share information between health workers and the Ministry. Later, during the back-to-school recovery phase of the response, UNICEF then supported the Ministry of Education and its partners to also adopt a RapidPro-based platform to verify that supplies needed for safe school reopening were delivered and monitor student enrollment.

Similarly, in Sierra Leone, inspired by the real-time data collection for decision-making adopted for the Ebola response, DFID funded UNICEF to establish ‘situation rooms’ in Ministry of Education and district offices, which collected data using the RapidPro system. This data was collected by community-based data collectors with mobile phones and helped track progress on the national post-Ebola education plan. This enabled districts to review and act on data to problem-solve at a local level. 10 11 12

5. Structures set up now will have long term implications

In extreme crisis situations, governments are under immense pressure to act quickly. This can prompt decisions that establish siloed parallel structures, or limit stakeholder engagement in decision-making to enable faster action. But the strategies governments use to manage the crisis and recovery can have lasting implications for their systems.

In Sierra Leone, the Presidential post-Ebola Recovery Priorities initiative successfully delivered key education initiatives as part of the wider post-disease recovery process, including classroom construction, teacher payroll verification, and school feeding. The implementation of these priorities, however, led the establishment of parallel processes for data collection, data analysis, and performance management, because the existing education delivery structure was too weak. These parallel structures met recovery targets, but the improvements to the bureaucracy’s operations were less durable, indicating the system itself was not strengthened by these activities.13

Similarly, a UNDP assessment of recovery strategies in West Africa post-Ebola concluded that despite temptation to work around the weaknesses in countries’ overall governance systems highlighted by the epidemic, parallel structures and systems created during crisis response could potentially undermine institutional capacity and limit the ability to sustain system governance and management gains post-crisis.14

6. Planning for the future must continue

Due to the anticipated learning loss that will occur over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s vital that governments start planning now for reenrollment and remedial programs to help students who have fallen behind. This planning can’t wait as it is important to begin this as soon as the crisis ends. 15

The challenge is that this requires dedicated staff time, even while the crisis response is ongoing. For this reason, Delivery Associates recommends leaders appoint staff to continue thinking about how to carry forward existing priorities and to plan for how the system can be rebuilt stronger post-crisis. They also suggest leaders continue to spend a small amount of time – even 30 minutes a week – reviewing these plans and helping to drive them forward. 16

Although leaders’ agendas are packed during a crisis, this planning has the potential to be transformative. In one notable historical example, the UK’s landmark 1944 Education Act –which transformed secondary education in the UK – was first drafted mid-WWII during the evacuation of London. 17

Looking ahead

For countries with weak existing management and coordination structures, establishing coordination mechanisms and considering how to strengthen existing capacities for information sharing and decision-making in the midst of a crisis can be particularly challenging. Nonetheless, past experience suggests that governments – and their partners – must be purposeful and strategic in not only what decisions are made now, but who is making them and how these decisions can create long-term benefits in the future.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the Education Commission team will continue its work exploring how governments prioritize and implement their education policy priorities and how governments can build coalitions and collaborate to finance their education needs. This work relates to the Commission’s longer-term work, including the DeliverEd Initiative, Education Workforce Initiative, and the International Finance Facility for Education. We invite any actors supporting government action in response to the COVID-19 crisis to connect with our team at to stay in touch for future research outputs and/or explore potential areas of collaboration around the pandemic and education emergency responses.

1 Hallgarten, J. (2020) Evidence on efforts to mitigate the negative educational impact of past disease outbreaks K4D Helpdesk Report 793. Reading, UK: Education Development Trust.

2 ‘Crisis Management Structures’. (2020) Tony Blair Institute For Global Change.

3 Hallgarten.

4 Fall Diawara, R. and Sall, T. (2020) ‘COVID 19: how Senegal intends to ensure #LearningNeverStops’. GEM Report World Education Blog.

5 Hallgarten

6 Skidmore, P. and Werner, G. (2020) ‘Coronavirus: what education ministers can learn from Ebola’. Global Partnership for Education.

7 Hallgarten

8 UNICEF. ‘UNICEF launches a new open-source software platform for international development’.

9 UNICEF (2015) ‘Briefing Note: Liberia Back to School Progress.’

10 Hallgarten.

11 DFID (2017) Annual Review Leh We Learn.

12 DFID (2016) Business Case: Sierra Leone Secondary Education Improvement Programme (SSEIP).

13 Todd, R. and Waistell, D. (2020) ‘Overview of the Delivery Approach’. Cambridge Education report for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

14 UNDP (2017). Recovering from the Ebola crisis: Summary Report.

15 Mundy, K and Hares, S. (2020) ‘Equity-Focused Approaches to Learning Loss during COVID-19’. Center for Global Development.

16 Barber, M. (2020) ‘Tackling the COVID-19 Crisis: Advice for leaders in government and the public sector.’ Delivery Associates.

17Barber, M.