Rethinking School Infrastructure During a Global Health Crisis

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

After more than 6 months since the beginning of national lockdowns and school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening schools is necessary and essential. Interruptions to classroom-based instructions have widened existing inequalities for vulnerable populations and reduced access to learning for a large fraction of the world’s children and youth. The longer schools remain closed, the more likely disadvantaged children are at risk of dropping out of school completely. Before the pandemic, children from the poorest households were already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than their richer counterparts.

Proper infrastructure lacking to prevent the spread of COVID-19

As countries start to rethink how to address school openings, new national risk mitigation measures and public health regulations need to be considered within the school’s physical space. Children’s role in transmitting the coronavirus is still uncertain, and younger children are less likely to be sensitive or respectful of strict measures. As such, few schools are prepared to reopen in a way that can protect children, teachers and other school staff. Two of the most important measures cited by global health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – namely, frequent and proper hand washing (using soap and water) and social distancing – are highly dependent on the existing physical infrastructure.

COVID-19-related hygiene and social distancing norms in schools are unearthing a range of systemic problems with infrastructure in schools across the world. From European schools in densely-populated urban areas to rural remote village schools in the mountains of north-eastern Cambodia, schools are facing a wide range of challenges in their provision of adequately protective COVID-19 environments. Inadequate physical conditions, such as water shortages, poor sanitation and small classrooms, are proving difficult to overcome in the short-term for an immediate response.

Almost half the schools in the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water while one-third are lacking in basic sanitation (i.e. improved facilities that are single-sex and usable at the school). Overall, schools in rural areas fare worse than those in urban areas while children at the pre-primary and primary levels have less access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities than those in higher education levels. Younger children are more likely to be vulnerable to WASH-related diseases, yet are at the right ages at which to establish foundational learning around health and hygiene. Thus, training young children, staff and family members is an essential component to establishing WASH services for a community.

Establishing adequate WASH facilities for vulnerable populations is crucial

Basic WASH facilities in schools are particularly important for WASH-vulnerable populations, including girls, persons with disabilities, children from poor households and children living in fragile contexts. Access to water and sanitation is not only a right in itself as established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – and safeguarded by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – but it contributes to the realization of other child rights, such as health, nutrition and education. Girls require separate latrines as a fundamental part of their safety and healthy participation in life. Girls are more likely to enrol, attend and complete school if they have access to single-sex facilities, which are essential, particularly for menstrual hygiene management. Yet, this is only the case in 54% of the least developed countries, compared to 72% in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, 79% in in Central and Southern Asia and 81% in Latin America and the Caribbean (UIS database). According to World Bank ranked income levels, only 73% of lower middle income countries provide single-sex basic sanitation facilities to their female students, compared to the World average of 78% and 97% of high income countries.

In addition to WASH concerns, schools needs to consider the existing physical learning environment to safeguard social distancing norms. Adapting school norms to larger classrooms as a long-term response to the COVID-19 situation can also help establish quality learning environments in the long-term. There are no set international standards for classroom sizes or ratios, although norms and guidelines exist to provide guidance on better quality learning environments. In 2005, UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Schools Manual recommended a minimum 3.8 metres squared per child in early learning centres. Setting minimum spaces for children in higher education levels is more complex, however, and depends on the conditions of the local community (including projected population growth) as well as environmental and climatic conditions. In Rwanda, a minimum of one squared meter per pupil is considered adequate. One can also establish a basis for the overall classroom size, whereby child-friendly classrooms could reach a minimum of 100 square meters if playing areas and multi-activity classrooms are included. For example, the preschool square footage per student ratio is usually higher than for primary schools as younger children are less frequently required to sit still at their desks.

Global Education Coalition initiatives provides guidance

Changing or adapting infrastructure to meet the new demands, however, can prove an expensive enterprise for many countries. Indeed, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) provided more than one-fifth of its total COVID-19 response grants (USD 266 million) to programmes in 12 countries that prepared school facilities for reopenings in safe environments for children and teachers. The Global Education Coalition for COVID-19 Response – launched by UNESCO in partnership with UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and other United Nations agencies, international organizations, private sector and civil society representatives – developed the Framework for reopening schools. Reopening schools is composed of a three-step process (before, during and after reopening) and organised according to operational safety standards, learning practices, well-being and protection that reach out to the most marginalised populations (including girls). In addition to investing in WASH to mitigate virus transmission risks, the Framework aims to provide a holistic approach on safe operational procedures by including and training teachers and school staff in adhering to social distancing measures and adopting relevant hygiene practices. A more recent jointly developed update to proper procedures and checklists to consider prior to reopening is also now available.

Ensuring classrooms and materials are accessible and inclusive has been the cornerstone of quality learning environments, and such standards are well aligned with needs during the COVID-19 reopenings. For example, modular classrooms – where furniture can be moved, collapsed or put away – is already a recommendation in some national guidelines for classrooms. As children and projects evolve and change during the school year, spaces that are adaptive can reduce the density of students in the classroom as required by social distancing norms.

Some adopted measures can be detrimental to effective learning

Adaptations to small classroom spaces has been shown to provide less than ideal reopening environments in some countries. To maintain WHO-recommended distancing measures among students and teachers (minimum of 1 meter squared), many schools have limited the number of students returning to classrooms at the same time, thereby reducing effective classroom time for all students. In addition, WHO guidelines recommend several decision points with regards to school reopenings, with specific attention paid to local trends on COVID-19 cases. The guidelines in France, for example, adapted an approach that prioritised certain students (i.e. those of medical workers), followed by children from vulnerable families. Thus, the total amount of time returning to the classroom is a function of the strict social distancing requirements, the school’s physical infrastructure, teacher availability and children’s background.

As effective learning time is reduced for all students, a temporary response is to prioritise learning according to student needs. Limited time in the classroom can make teachers face more time-stress to meet the needs of national curricula and high-stakes examinations for certification or selection to the next education level. As part of the crisis-sensitive approach, education planners can reassess curricular objectives and transitions to upper education levels.

In 2015, the global community validated the importance of infrastructure to deliver quality education for all learners and teachers, regardless of background or disability status. The international standard noted in the Education 2030 Framework states that “Every learning environment should be accessible to all and have adequate resources and infrastructure to ensure reasonable class sizes and provide sanitation facilities.” Sanitation crises such as COVID-19 mark the urgency in reaching these goals and highlight existing concerns around poor learning environments. However, this moment can also serve as a catalyst to improve learning conditions and outcomes for all children.

Eleven theses for a counter-isolation pedagogy

By the Pansophia Project: María Eugenia Arias, Mayra Botta, Delfina Campetella, María Laura Carrasco, Cristina Carriego, Agustina Lenzi, Mariano Narodowski, Emiliano Pereiro and Gustavo Romero

In these confusing and uncertain times due to forced homeschooling, authors from the Pansophia Project propose that we pause and reflect on this new reality before deciding on the best way to move forward to preserve key educational gains. Eleven theses on pedagogy are presented here to provide food for thought as we navigate the current COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Digital culture can breed a false sense of security
If COVID-19 had been unleashed just 20 years ago, even the most fortunate of us would have had to rely on radios, cable TV, dial-up internet access and flip cell phones. No digital platforms, social networks, video calls and no streaming services were yet available.

What would have happened to schooling? We would have had to accept that months of education would be lost, while we planned for the return of children to their classrooms.

Today’s digital culture could lull us into thinking that we are going to lose less or lose nothing at all. After all, we have mobilized technology to keep schooling going, right? But in fact, maybe we need to pause and reflect as we design a counter-isolation pedagogy for today and for similar shocks in the future.

2. Pedagogy is the opposite of isolation
Modern pedagogy aims to educate as many children and young people in the best possible way: in school. Pedagogy is, therefore, the opposite of isolation. Its tools rely on an encounter between teacher and student in a school – a non-transferable and unique encounter that is structured around knowledge.


3. A house is not a school
Houses are nothing like schools. A school is a complex organization led by specialized teachers who earn their wages from their work. Schools are spaces where students must go to learn a body of knowledge common to them all. They are state-regulated and, mostly, state-funded. Schools are part of the public sphere, and an integral part of what unites us as a community.

Schools may even provide the care, control and affection that may be missing at home. Even so, nobody is paid to be part of a household, and households themselves are only ‘regulated’ in extreme circumstances, such as during quarantine.

4. Confinement isn’t ‘normal’
Learning at home does not mirror learning in a classroom. Faced with a lockdown, our initial response was focused on performance and efficiency. Initial bewilderment became hyperactivity and then exhaustion as we tried to impose a sense of ‘normalcy’ on a situation that was anything but.

No one was prepared for such an abrupt change: most schools lacked the technological capacity and few parents were prepared to teach their children fulltime, in a formal manner and by themselves. The image of a home equipped with the materials and resources of a school has been accurate for only a tiny fraction of the world’s households – if that.

5. Lockdown deepens inequalities that schools have not been able to resolve
Schools provide the greatest potential for equity in human history: populations that were excluded from knowledge for millennia now have access to learning. Yet schools have failed to reach everyone and the access to knowledge they provide is not immune to broader processes of segregation and inequality.

While some resources for distance learning are available for free, socioeconomic conditions reinforce existing disparities – for many, even free resources are unattainable. And of course, the economic impact of lockdown harms children and teenagers from the most vulnerable groups, whose health and food deficits have increased, reducing their chances of continuing their education.

These inequalities are not erased by lockdown: they just become deeper. Available data shows that a lack of internet connection and technology leaves most students worldwide unable to ‘virtualize.’ And those who have connectivity may find it hard to interact with their teachers via cell phone.

The social distribution of technology will remain unfair as long as network access remains limited to teach and learn. And something that has been denied will become only too clear: students do not abandon schools but schools abandon students when we do not give them a realistic alternative.

6. Remote teaching is not equal to moving the school to the teacher’s house.
Remote teaching means relying on information and communication technologies (ICTs), and adapting the teacher’s work implies a profound transformation. The means change, but so does the nature of the education itself, which abandons face-to-face interaction, is provided remotely and requires major modifications.

Structured and planned remote teaching usually requires changes in content and even the actors involved, with greater reliance on the support of tutors or counselors to monitor each student. In theory, it demands careful, systematic and predictable design and planning. That, in turn, typically entails time-consuming preparation of specific materials from didactic guides to evaluation tools and the division of teaching functions into different roles, such as content specialists and virtual design experts who are paid specifically for the design of remote classrooms and lessons.

In lockdown, however, the opposite is happening: teachers add all the different roles required for remote teaching to their school responsibilities – and all for the same price. The rapid and immediate virtualization of teaching carries a high cost, and teachers, parents and learners pay for it.

Rather than a systematic approach to remote learning, what we have is a kind of emergency remote schooling. That is not enough.

7. Technology is an aid, not a solution
There is a belief that for every problem there is probably a technological solution. This technological solutionism is foolish when it fails to answer the biggest question: can technology solve the educational issues posed by lockdown? It is clear that the technology at home is no substitute for the technology that is available in some schools. But just as important as the technical limitations are the didactic limitations: re-opening the debate between the defenders of traditional schools and the ‘techno-fundamentalists’ who advocate for the replacement of school technology with artificial intelligence.

This fascination with technology is an obstacle if we expect it to achieve the same results as schools during lockdown. Better to move forward with tools that foster innovation, making sure that all teachers and families have devices and connectivity.

8. Create educational continuity in other ways
It is time to adapt our expectations to the new reality, allowing ourselves more flexibility, and selecting content, activities, care, quantities and qualities in a smart and measured way. Schools resolved the challenges of catering for students of different ages and educational levels two centuries ago. But without schools, the solutions – classrooms, breaks, timetables and tests – become illusions. And the younger the student, the greater their reliance on adults and the lower their chances of learning without depending on a school. Trying to replicate a school schedule during lockdown is also unlikely to succeed.

Some teachers use more complex platforms and could impose a schedule similar to the one in school if families have the economic, housing, technological and cultural conditions to go along with it – i.e. the smallest and richest sector of the population. Perhaps lockdown entails testing options that will enhance the educational experience once it ends. But even in the best-case scenario, there is no certainty that the digital model will work as well as the school model.

9. Go back to basics – time to prioritize
Social isolation forces us to detach ourselves from the school timetable and re-think teaching: what are we going to do and how are we going to do it once we reject the idea of doing for the sake of doing?

Prioritizing content and experience seems less ambitious, yet more realistic than trying to force continuity for something that is no longer there. Prioritizing means building relevant criteria for disciplines, contents and knowledge, but also for the bond with and among students. Prioritization criteria should be the foundation for every decision and should be filtered by the question: why? The schoolteacher is only one type of teacher, and maybe this forced exile encourages us to question the meaning of what we do.

Perhaps the first priority should be dealing with the socio-emotional situation of our students and of ourselves: the context cannot be ignored, and pedagogical continuity requires ongoing reflection from teachers that cannot be paused due to confinement.

Prioritizing is the bedrock of building a counter-isolation pedagogy. It means establishing deep feelings that connect us through knowledge and encounters that, while remote and mediated, allow us to reconstruct the pedagogical relationship that is missing.

10. Build a flexible, realistic and pansophic project
Perceiving the sound of a person’s voice, their writing and even their image on a screen, but without experiencing the actual presence and gaze of the other is a challenge. This pretense that things are somehow the same must give way to a realistic approach that allows the continuation of educating in the context of lockdown.

We lack a play book for this – not because governments, international organizations, and specialists have become silent, but because nobody has instructions to give. Once again, no one taught the teachers, and teachers themselves are having to figure it out. Acknowledging uncertainty is the first step to avoid hyperactivity that rings hollow or the anguished “nothing can be done” paralysis.

Moving forward, it is essential to map out the situation, creating a realistic diagram of the contingency of social isolation conditions that can adapt to the variations that we are facing. It needs to be pansophic enough – in other words, an approach that ensures that all human knowledge is equally accessible to all human beings, despite socio-economic and other such barriers – to enable a counter-isolation pedagogy through which we can maintain opening the paths of education for ourselves and others, even during lockdown.

11. When experience is not enough, we need to draw on the present
There are no magic recipes for the new. Counter-isolation pedagogy needs to consider everything that needs to be thought about and done, but not just anything. Having no prior experience with confinement and school closures on this massive global scale, we need to draw and reflect on the lessons we are learning now as we navigate the challenges in the present. After all, education itself is the possibility of thought. And thought is the virus we all need to catch.