Time To Act Now!
The COVID-19 crisis undoubtedly marks a critical moment in students’ education pathways, with varying implications for their emotional, social and economic well-being. At its peak during the first half of 2020, in an effort to contain the virus, around 91% of the world’s enrolled learners were shut out of their usual place of learning (UNESCO, 2020). The OECD estimates that, by June 2020, 80% of member and partner countries had already employed some degree of school closure for more than three months, around one-third of the average academic year (OECD, 2020). For the current student cohort, if education systems are unable to make up the equivalent learning loss, this could result in 3% lower career earnings; for the typical nation, this could result in around 1.5% lower Gross Domestic Product (GDP) throughout the remainder of the century (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2020).
The world economy has also fallen into the deepest recession since the Second World War, with young workers predicted to be among those the hardest hit. Re-connecting young people with the labour market can be very challenging once they lose touch with it. Following the global financial crisis, it took a decade for youth unemployment rates to return to pre-crisis levels (OECD, 2020). Therefore, today’s learners not only face tougher educational trajectories due to possible learning loss, but also potentially fewer opportunities in the labour market for many years to come.
At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis increasingly reveals itself to be not simply a pandemic, but rather a syndemic. This means that social factors play at least as strong a role in the spread and impact of the virus as biological factors; an integrated approach that reaches beyond clinical medicine and public health is therefore necessary. A broader vision encompassing, for example, education, employment, basic living conditions or environment is more likely to succeed in strengthening global resilience against this virus (Horton, 2020).
All of this means that merely aiming to return education to the pre-COVID-19 status quo is not an option. The unprecedented challenges facing this generation and global society in general demand that education systems maintain the momentum of collective emergency action to leap forward into a better normal. Emergency measures imposed by the crisis have planted the seeds of such a transition; in order for the roots to take hold, new knowledge must now translate into action. This does not necessarily mean reinventing the wheel, but steering it in the direction of brighter destinations for societies. Looking forward, today’s learners deserve education systems that embrace student inclusion to ensure that all individuals thrive, that reconfigure curriculum and assessment to recognise the full complexities of thinking and doing, and that value and empower educators as advanced knowledge workers operating in collegial work structures, accountable to both their peers and key stakeholders. Policy makers must now act smartly, identifying the levers of change where quick wins today can translate into greater wins tomorrow.