The Luminos Fund recently enjoyed the privilege of hosting a key education dialogue led by Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper. Susannah Hares is Senior Policy Fellow and Co-Director of the Global Education Program at Center for Global Development. Dr. Benjamin Piper is Senior Director of Africa Education at RTI International.
Caitlin Baron, Luminos CEO, opened the discussion by reflecting on how dramatically the world has changed over the six months between February and July 2020. Education has been severely disrupted globally. At the early high point of the Coronavirus pandemic, over 1.6 billion children were out of school, according to UNESCO. School closures still affect over 1 billion children. As national governments and members of the international development community continue to wrestle with how to respond to secure learning opportunities for children and mitigate learning loss, we at Luminos wanted our board, funders, supporters, and friends to hear from two of the world’s foremost education researchers.
The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Effect on Education
Susannah Hares began with a multifaceted bird’s eye view of how the pandemic has affected education across the globe. While schools are starting to open in parts of the world, Hares pointed out that the pandemic will cast a long shadow on education in at least the following ways:
Finance: We will likely see a reduction in education finance due to deflated national economic growth projections that will squeeze education budgets. Economic experts expect contractions in middle-income countries and slowdowns in low-income countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and possibly continued stagnancy in global aid to education. In other words, there will be much less money available to support learning.
Access: Important gains in education access over the last ten years may be rolled back significantly. Close to 7 million children could drop out of school, either long-term or permanently, due to household income shocks related to the pandemic. Notably, children from the lowest income households, girls, children with disabilities, and displaced and refugee children will likely suffer the brunt of the shocks.
Ed Tech: While education technology will be harnessed to solve remote learning challenges, the sector has not yet lived up to its hype. As research and experimentation continue regarding the potent contribution teachers can play in boosting ed tech, many low-income households still lack access to internet, radio, and television. As a result, ed tech firms have low usage. For example, in Africa, just two ed tech firms have more than 1 million users.
Inequality: Most obviously, school closures will exacerbate inequality. Many countries were slow to implement distance learning. In many instances, only wealthy families benefit from technology-driven distance learning initiatives. As a result, learning loss will be greater among children from low-income households. A number of countries are returning exam cohorts to school first, which presents unique challenges.
Exam Culture: Many countries are returning their exam cohorts to school first (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Ghana). But the practice of high stakes exams will likely further disadvantage certain children. Exams are used as filtering mechanisms as children transition from primary, to secondary, to tertiary education. Even at the best times, this filtering mechanism has an economic bias (children from less wealthy households do not progress as readily as their wealthier counterparts). School closures only make this worse in high stakes testing environments.
Private Education: The pandemic may put vast numbers of private schools out of business or continue with very fragile business models and vulnerable balance sheets as school closures persist. This may disrupt market equilibrium, as demand for private education becomes less price elastic, and supply-side providers are forced to invest less in education quality-enhancing resources. This may also catalyze a significant shift of children away from private education to public education, resulting in permanent closures of private schools.
Dr. Benjamin Piper followed with a deeper dive into learning loss and its implications for inequality. He also offered thoughts and reflections on what the opportunities might be for funders at this unique moment in history.
Pre-COVID-19, learning loss and, in particular, summer learning loss (the period between grade levels when many children experience a regression in content and skills they may have acquired in their most recently completed grade level) were already matters of concern in the education sector. Research published by Dr. Piper and his colleagues in Malawi revealed that children in transition between Grades 1 and 2 and Grades 3 and 4, were losing between 30-40 percent of their previous year’s learning. The takeaway here, is that gaps in instruction have dramatic impacts on learning.
Dr. Piper’s team then modeled data from pandemic-related school closures in dozens of low and middle income countries. The models suggest that learning loss will not affect the small percent of highest performing children. The children in the middle will lose some learning, commensurate with the amount of instructional time lost. But, for a vast number of children at the bottom of the distribution curve, pandemic-related learning loss will reduce most if not all of the skills and content they would have acquired in the 2020 academic year.
The point of alarm from Dr. Piper’s research, therefore, is that the protracted time that children spend away from learning due to COVID-19 will have catastrophic implications on their educations and futures. Not only that, those children who are worst off will have the largest learning loss. Donors and implementers need to consider how their support to education systems will not only reduce learning loss but protect those at the bottom of the distribution who are most vulnerable.
A Word to Funders
Dr. Piper concluded his comments with recommendations for funders:
Provide stability to grantees
Don’t fund things that expand inequality
Modest support for emergencies, sure
But spend primarily on building back better
Support structured pedagogical approaches that advance learning
Make direct investments in better teaching
Consider how to help evidence-based success models to scale
The Luminos Fund team cannot be more appreciative of Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper for the deeply insightful wisdom they shared during this important session. This is the type of thought leadership makes us hopeful that the world will indeed see constructive, agile, and innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: responses that reduce learning poverty, mitigate learning loss, and give all children a chance to unlock the light of learning in their lives.
George K. Werner served as Minister of Education in Liberia from 2015 to 2018. Caitlin Baron is CEO of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit working in Liberia and across Africa to bring a second chance at education to out-of-school children.
“It has gotten really tough for us,” says James, a father in rural Liberia, of COVID-19 lockdown and school closures. “My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school.”
“When Coronavirus passes, will your school still be there to help us with our children?” asks Fatu, a Liberian mother of six.
Around the world, over one billion children are out of school. All will face learning losses (data from World War II and other crises offer grim indications on this) and far too many will be lost to learning forever. Estimates suggest the COVID-19 pandemic will cause this generation to lose $10 trillion in future earnings.
Headlines exclaim that the global education system has never seen a moment like this and, in some sense, that is true. However, in Liberia, where we work, this is the second pandemic in six years. Our experiences in Liberia provide important lessons for COVID-19 education system recovery in low-income countries – and the uniquely important role of “last mile teachers.”
In 2014, the Ebola crisis closed schools across Liberia for six months to a year. One and a half million children were excluded from school, in addition to 500,000 children who were already excluded before Ebola roared through the country. As Liberia’s Minister of Education, I led the country’s education response. I traveled with my team to schools across Liberia, speaking with teachers, parents, and children to assess the magnitude of the task to bring children back to learning. I concluded that the education system was failing and bold reform was needed urgently: the Ministry of Education needed to rethink everything about its education delivery system for post-Ebola Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where Caitlin is CEO, was one of several education organizations that launched operations in Liberia as part of the recovery journey following Ebola.
Reflecting on past school closures in Liberia and beyond, and our experience educating vulnerable children, we identify three key steps for education systems to come back strong after a crisis like COVID-19. First, targeted outreach must be conducted to bring the most vulnerable and older students back to school. Next, each child should be assessed to understand the extent of their learning loss, and to meet students where they are in the curriculum. Finally, remediation should be provided to bring students who have fallen behind back up to grade level.
Here is the key, and challenge: all of these steps rely on the efforts and tenacity of frontline educators, but low-income countries do not have nearly enough teachers. UNESCO estimates a global shortage of nearly 69 million teachers, 70% of whom are needed in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, many countries cannot graduate teachers fast enough to fill the shortfall. South Sudan, for example, would need all of its projected graduates from higher education – twice over – to become teachers to fill its gap. Traditional teacher training alone is insufficient to meet demand, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some non-government organizations are helping address the need. The Luminos Fund manages an education program in Liberia that has achieved powerful success with a different model of teacher preparation (James’s son and Fatu’s daughter are students this year). Luminos recruits local, motivated, high potential young people with minimal qualifications as teachers. The program has shown that, with an intensive three-week training followed by ongoing classroom-based coaching, these recruits deliver transformative learning for children who are often the first in their family to learn to read. Luminos teachers are so successful that, in less than one year, their students advance from still learning the alphabet to reading 39 words a minute. After one year of schooling, Luminos students read at a rate that only 15% of Liberian third graders can match.
Today, school systems across Africa and beyond must think expansively about the assets they can deploy to respond to the current crisis – and take action. Status quo thinking is inadequate to respond to the moment.
Here Liberia has another powerful lesson to share with this world. In the provision of basic healthcare, Liberia hosts perhaps the world’s most famous example of the creative extension of government delivery capacity through collaboration with civil society: Last Mile Health. Last Mile Health has reached over 1.2 million of the poorest Liberians through a network of 3,600 community and frontline health workers. Community health workers are paid professionals, recruited from these same poor communities and empowered to provide basic healthcare in consultation with the formal system. This model is now being scaled to reach nine million people with primary care services globally by 2030. Last Mile Health has created a model community health system in Liberia and marshalled a movement to develop the global workforce of community and frontline health workers. The same approach could be used in education and is not dissimilar to how Luminos operates. Far too often, though, the global education sector has viewed community-based educators as a threat, unlike global health’s careful but open-minded exploration of alternative models.
The world may never see another global school closure like the one we are experiencing, but in Liberia, COVID-19 is the second pandemic in six years. Low-income countries – and countries everywhere – need to build resilient school systems that can weather periodic closures and still deliver transformative learning for students. Building a global workforce of frontline education staff from remote communities to serve remote communities – last mile teachers – is a critical part of the formula.
The Luminos Fund is delighted to publish our 2019 Annual Report. To date, we’ve enabled 136,502 vulnerable children to receive a second chance at education – and this year was unlike any other. Our team is more committed than ever to ensuring children everywhere have the opportunity to learn and thrive, and to helping educators and governments in low-income countries develop the resiliency to weather powerful storms like COVID-19.
With over 1 billion youths out of school globally due to the pandemic, the Luminos Fund’s mission to help children get back to school is more important than ever. Our work was made for the task ahead.
“We’re still focused on our core education mandate, but we felt we had to reach further to help during this crisis. We’re thrilled to receive this grant from the END Fund to provide essential relief to more communities.”
Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs at the Luminos Fund
The END Fund works to end the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which together affect 1.7 billion people worldwide. A group of parasitic and bacterial diseases, NTDs trap people in the cycle of poverty and, among children, infection leads to malnutrition, cognitive impairment, stunted growth, and the inability to attend school. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the END Fund is allocating grants from its COVID-19 Response Fund to assist communities affected by the virus in Africa. The Luminos Fund’s mission is to educate the world’s most vulnerable out-of-school children, but the organization has shifted during COVID-19 to provide relief, too. In this interview, Warren Lancaster, Senior Vice President of Programs at the END Fund, and Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs at the Luminos Fund, discuss how the END Fund is supporting the Luminos Fund’s efforts in rural Liberia through its COVID-19 Response Fund — and what makes this collaboration unique.
Q. How did the grant to the Luminos Fund come about? How does the grant fit in with the END Fund’s COVID-19 Response Fund?
Warren Lancaster: Since I was familiar with the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program being embedded in communities, I thought it was an ideal platform for community-level COVID-19 mitigation interventions especially hand washing and community information.
Rural villages are the communities most affected by intestinal worms (soil-transmitted helminths) and schistosomiasis. Breaking the fecal-oral route is a key strategy to break the transmission of intestinal worms. However, behavior change around sanitation practices can be very challenging due to constraints in poor, rural villages (e.g. no running water or electricity). Intervening to help directly with a perceived need where hand washing is suddenly seen as a positive community good contributed to an immediate need — COVID-19 — and a longer-term one as well — ending neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
Q. The Luminos Fund’s mission is to help vulnerable and out-of-school children with education. How does this COVID-19 Response funding align with your work?
Nikita Khosla: It’s true: at Luminos, our mission is to ensure no child is ever denied an education, whether by poverty, crisis, or discrimination. It has come as a surprise to everyone at Luminos that we would face one of our busiest moments when all our classrooms are closed due to this pandemic. We’re now providing distance learning and relief.
My colleague Abba Karnga Jr., who manages our program in Liberia, might have explained our pivot best so I’ll quote him: “We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”
We’ve been staying in close contact with colleagues and partners in the countries where we work, and even surveying teachers and students’ families on the frontline to stay abreast of the crisis. It’s been both inspiring and heartbreaking to see how communities are coping. We’re still focused on our core education mandate, but we felt we had to reach further to help during this crisis. We’re thrilled to receive this grant from the END Fund to provide essential relief to more communities.
Q. What was the END Fund’s motivation to provide COVID Response funding in Liberia?
Warren: Liberia requires treatment for four of the five NTDs we work on, including schistosomiasis and intestinal worms. We used to be very involved in NTD programming in Liberia but that project came to an end. With hand washing having a dual benefit for NTDs and COVID-19, the funding fit in with our COVID-19 Response Fund in a country we were already familiar with.
Q. What does this funding from the END Fund mean for the Luminos Fund’s COVID-19 response in Liberia?
Nikita: Thanks to the END Fund’s grant, Luminos is providing 37 hand washing stations, buckets, soap, and bleach to remote villages, as well as mobilizing and training community teams to carry out monthly door-to-door awareness efforts regarding hand washing. The community teams will speak to families and hand out printed health flyers that have text and visuals. These are communities without running water or electricity and many adults who cannot read, so these efforts will have a material positive impact. In fact, we’ve already begun this work. The first supplies were distributed, and a second round of supplies was distributed the second week of June. We’re receiving very positive feedback from families and our team in Liberia.
Q. Given the END Fund and Luminos Fund’s roots with Legatum, what makes this grant unique? Why are you excited for your organizations to work together on this?
Warren: The motto of Legatum is to look for the great beyond the good. The Luminos Fund’s program is already great; this just makes it “greater!” We were excited to bring two members of the Legatum family together in a way that adds value to the missions of both organizations.
Nikita: I know I speak for the Luminos team when I say we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to partner with the END Fund, especially on something as important as COVID relief for vulnerable communities. I’ve been at Luminos over four years and, in the back of my mind, I feel I’ve been looking for ways to work with the other wonderful organizations — like the END Fund and Freedom Fund — that were initially funded by Legatum.
Legatum focuses on unlocking human potential and creating sustainable prosperity. Helping Liberian families sustain through this dire crisis so they can continue their education and livelihoods on the other side feels very aligned with Legatum’s mission — and our missions at Luminos and END. So, while the circumstances are somber, this is a pivotal moment to align our efforts.
To learn more about the END Fund’s work to end neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), visit https://end.org.
To learn more about the Luminos Fund’s work ensuring no child is ever denied the chance to learn, whether by poverty, crisis, or discrimination, visit https://luminosfund.org.
Over the last several weeks of the “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we have shown how COVID-19 and school closures have affected some of the world’s most vulnerable students. Education organizations have had to be adaptive and responsive to meet the most pressing needs of their students and their families while trying to plan for the long-term impacts of the pandemic. In this final blog post of the series, we take a look at the impacts of COVID on the most vulnerable students.
CGD colleagues have written about how school closures are exacerbating inequality, how learning loss will be greater for children with less connectivity and parents less able to help them, and how school closures will put some children at higher risk of violence and other forms of abuse. Girls are more likely to be negatively affected by COVID-19, as 69 percent of education organizations said in response to a CGD survey.
These impacts are likely to continue to be felt in the long term. As evidence from Argentina, the United States, and Indonesia has shown, less educated workers are more affected by economic crises, and students who drop out of school or experience significant declines in learning are likely to face lower lifetime productivity and earnings. That’s in addition to the potential psychological impacts of isolation and in some cases abuse during lockdowns.
This week, we examine how one particularly vulnerable population served by the Luminos Fund—refugee children in Lebanon—has been affected. The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan describes what school closures mean for girls and their education and life opportunities. And Educate Girls, an organization based in India new to the series, shares stories from the frontlines.
Luminos: Education for refugee children during COVID-19
Lebanon is navigating economic strife, inflation, unrest, painful cross-border tension, and a pandemic, all while hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world per capita. There are 910,256 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but theactual number is likely even higher. Despite the Lebanese government’s efforts to offer school placement to refugee children,over a third of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon at the age of compulsory schooling (6-14) are out of school. For those that are in school, this academic year has had major disruptions: schools closed for weeks in the autumn due to political protests and unrest, and again beginning in March due to COVID.
In Lebanon, the Luminos Fund offers back-to-school and homework support programs for Syrian refugees, including robust psychosocial support such as art and music therapy to help students process trauma. Many students have been out of school for years, and all are learning in English and French (the standard languages of instruction in Lebanon) for the first time. These programs are an opportunity for refugee children to catch up to grade level and prepare to assimilate into Lebanese classrooms. During COVID, Luminos has shifted these programs to online and message-based learning, for example through WhatsApp, whichmany families identify as their preferred communication format.
For the refugee families that Luminos serves, financial pressure is a greater concern than COVID, which has implications for education. Mahmoud, a father, describes the stress that he feels: “My daughter receives some lessons on WhatsApp, and I go to my neighbor’s home to use their internet connection to download the lessons because I do not have enough credits for 3G. Honestly, I am embarrassed because, first, I feel shy when I go to my neighbors’ for internet connection and, second, my financial status is very bad. I am borrowing money to buy food so I don’t know how to afford buying my children notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, etc. I cannot find a job.”
Syrian refugee children,both boys and girls, are at particular risk of dropping out of school, especially now. Boys may be needed to earn income for the household. Girls are at risk of early marriage, perhaps to a man with a degree of financial stability, and may be at greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence during the pandemic. Even before COVID, Luminos needed to adjust school hours during harvest season because children go to work, and the crisis is accentuating these hardships.
Some children are studying online, says Assem, a teacher, but adds that he sees children working, like selling napkins at a nearby traffic stop, or playing outdoors during COVID. Families report seeing some children scavenging for food or potential toys.
When the Lebanese-Syrian border reopens, some refugee families may decide to return to Syria, depending on when schools reopen in Lebanon and the family’s assessment of the economic situation—a choice that illuminates the confluence of crises these families face.
Luminos has continued to evaluate new ways to support refugee families and students through the crisis, such as by providing cell data cards to families who will have trouble accessing lessons otherwise. It has considered distributing tablets, but there is concern families may sell these devices for short-term income.
“I hope schools will open and my children return to their schools,” says Azab, a father. “I hope life becomes normal again. I think life will not be normal as it was before because life is financially harder now. Honestly, I don’t know what will happen.”
TCF: COVID, gender, and class
“What are we supposed to do with a learning continuity plan when we don’t have anything to eat at home? Our girls are better off stitching footballs, at least that way we can put food on the table,” parents told Shakeela, a TCF principal running a government school for girls in a village in Narowal, Punjab.
TCF estimates that a significant proportion of its students are currently at risk of dropping out, primarily girls and students from the lowest-income families. Boys who come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, especially those currently in secondary school, are also at risk of leaving school to serve as an extra set of hands in the fields or at local shops.
Principals, teachers, and community members from across the TCF network are echoing the challenge of keeping female students in school if closures persist. There’s a particular concern about girls dropping out during the transition from primary to secondary schooling, a problem which predates the pandemic but is likely to be exacerbated in its aftermath. The reasons for this are familiar: the loss of livelihood has a disproportionate impact on girls, as they are expected to take on traditional caregiver roles around the home while their mothers earn a living; distance to school and the cost of transportation; early marriages; and familial and societal pressures.
With several low-cost private schools at risk of closing due to the economic impact of COVID-19, parents are increasingly worried about their daughters’ job prospects (teaching is seen as a safe and respectable job for women, as we noted here). They are calling into question the value of educating them instead of teaching them skills such as beautician work, embroidery, or stitching.
Ahsan, aged 10, used to help his father in the fields after school, but is now working from daybreak to sunset. He says, “Every day we used to play and do activities at school. I miss meeting my teachers and friends. Without school, it’s only work.” For many boys like Ahsan, the transition back to school may be challenging or even impossible, due to the economic pressure his family is facing.
In addition to economic pressures to work, the digital divide is also preventing the continuity of learning for some students who do not have access to technology. That puts kids at greater risk of dropping out, as they’re unable to catch up.
Accounts from the field of the impact of all these factors, however, have been mixed—some TCF principals are confident that they will be able to retain all of their students, while others are much more apprehensive. TCF’s TV program, self-study magazine, and community outreach have sought to keep families and students engaged with education. Continued parental support, where we find it, has been predicated on community members feeling that TCF did not leave them behind: the relief work that TCF has done, coupled with the regular community outreach by phone from principals and teachers has meant that some parents are happy to send their children, daughters and sons alike, back to school. How long this patience will last is yet to be determined.
Educate Girls: Losing girls due to lockdown?
The team at Educate Girls in India recognizes that learning loss due to COVID is important, but has been more troubled by the possibility of scores of girls losing out completely on continuing their education as a result of the pandemic.
They have seen cases of this play out firsthand: Gita, a girl in a remote village in Rajasthan, was on the verge of completing her education when the pandemic hit and her school closed. Gita is a child bride who had been allowed to finish her education before moving in with her husband. Her family deemed it inappropriate for her (as for many girls in the area) to have access to a mobile phone—preventing her from accessing distance learning. When she did briefly use the phone to text a girlfriend, her father and brother believed her to be dishonoring her family, talking to a boy and not her husband, and sent her off to her in-laws earlier than planned. News traveled fast and three other girls in similar situations in Gita’s village were also sent to live with their husbands—accelerating their child marriages and diminishing their futures. They are unlikely now to ever set foot in a classroom again.
Another girl, Pinky, and her three sisters live in fear of their alcoholic father, even without a lockdown and now, cooped up at home, the situation is precarious. The pandemic and lockdown have increased the risks of gender-based violence, with reports of calls to national helplines rapidly increasing. With Educate Girls’ field teams on lockdown, it is hard to translate these stories into quantitative data, but the reports from staff in communities Educate Girls serves have been deeply concerning.
Educate Girls, in partnership with the government of India and local communities, has enrolled more than half a million girls into school over the past 12 years, many for the first time. But the pandemic and lockdowns have created a real fear among staff that more than a decade of progress could disappear overnight. As livelihoods and health issues loom as the greatest risks, education is deprioritized. It is hard for a field worker to pick up the phone and have a conversation about school when their family has lost its income and its food.
Like many other education NGOs, Educate Girls’ staff and volunteers have pivoted to do relief work beyond their usual role, supporting over 100,000 of the worst-hit families across 1,500 villages with the highest concentration of out-of-school girls. Despite substantial fears about the impact of the crisis on girls’ education, the hope is that the crisis will be an opportunity to rethink the systems and policies that have been at the root of girls’ repression all these years—and that NGOs can help press the reset button on the systems that are holding the most vulnerable back.
Thanks very much to the teams at the Luminos Fund, TCF, and Educate Girls for sharing their stories. These stories have illuminated for us what new relief operations, distance learning and learning loss, the roles of educators, and COVID-19 impacts on girls and the most vulnerable populations have meant in reality. While the series is ending for now, CGD’s education team will be continuing to research these issues related to the pandemic’s longer-term effects on global education.
Maretta Silverman: What’s happening with you and your family/friends?
Abba Karnga Jr.: My family are like every family in Liberia: on lockdown, staying home, and not doing normal things. All of Liberia is in a state of emergency and there are lots of rules. We’re observing curfew, wearing masks when we go out in public, and handwashing constantly!
Right now, my kids are with my mom who lives in another county, doing the same thing. The major challenge my mom faces is trying to find activities for the kids to keep them occupied. It is the same for my friends and neighbors. Everyone’s kids are idle. My family has it better than most in Liberia, especially regarding food: we were able to prepare well for this crisis, have food, and can stay at home. But many families are having a lot of difficulty finding food. People aren’t eating regular meals. I feel like I have a responsibility, as someone who has a little, to share with those who are less fortunate. It’s a very weird and strange situation in Liberia. I think it’s much harder on children than adults.
MS: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?
AK: Liberia’s Ministry of Education has ideas and strategies to help schools reach children and to help programs like us at the Luminos Fund to reach our students. One major thing they are concentrating on is radio programs. This is a great effort but I do see challenges because, in some places like the rural communities where Luminos works, either radio stations don’t reach, or families don’t have radios, or people haven’t heard about the program schedule so don’t know to listen. I’m afraid many students aren’t paying attention. I think everyone realizes the limitations, but radio is perhaps the best tool in the national toolkit to reach children.
Education is very, very slow in most of our communities. Some school systems have created lessons to send home but, anecdotally in my friend group, most kids aren’t really doing them. In Liberia, we know most learning happens at school. Parents are busy and may not be educated, so it’s hard to expect them to guide learning at home.
At the Luminos Fund, we offer a 10-month program to help out-of-school children catch up on their learning: to learn to read, write, and do math. In March, all our classes closed because of COVID. We decided to focus on learning that students could continue at home, as well as to distribute materials directly to our students’ homes: readers, math workbooks, and worksheets. We believe this is good practice for students, helps them continue engaging in education, and it’s useful for them to know their teachers are thinking about them. There are challenges, of course. I’d estimate that about forty percent of our facilitators (teachers) live in the community they serve and can easily assign lessons and check on students regularly by walking past their homes, which is great. In communities where there aren’t facilitators, one of our supervisors goes to check in with students once a week.
“About forty percent of our facilitators live in the community they serve and can easily assign lessons and check on students regularly by walking past their homes.”
MS: What do you/your community need help with?
AK: Two things. First, food. There’s extremely high unemployment right now in Liberia. Most people depend on a daily hustle or contracts to survive, and much of that work has stopped due to the Coronavirus and lockdown. The Liberian government proposed a stimulus package some weeks ago, but it hasn’t moved forward. Families are really suffering.
Second, I wish children had more home recreation options during this period. Most homes in Liberia don’t have electricity, so TV isn’t realistic. Board games would be nice. It’s lockdown, but many kids still try to play outside and people have to chase them away. It’s risky. Parents are trying to make ends meet.
MS: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?
AK: I’m excited about the support we’re witnessing from people in communities across Liberia, who have created local Coronavirus awareness teams. I’m on the team in my community. I think this community-level action comes, in part, from our experiences with Ebola a few years ago. Right now, we’ve set up handwashing sites. We ensure people coming into the community wash their hands and wear a mask. We go around with flyers (practicing social distancing) or loudspeakers on cars to raise awareness about COVID and share good information. It’s motivating and useful. I think it’s great when people mobilize themselves.
MS: What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?
AK: Our program! Luminos is an education organization but pivoted quickly to provide relief to students’ families during this crisis, including learning materials, soap, detergent, barrels for water, and food. Recently, we distributed food to over 1,600 of our students’ homes. For more than a week after, we received calls from parents. Some parents were literally crying in appreciation of what Luminos did. They said they never expected it and it was so timely. Some families were out of food and hadn’t known where they would find their next meal. We even heard from other community members and local leaders who heard what we did and called – not even parents. So, seeing the humanitarian aspect of this work is what’s most inspiring for me. I’m grateful we can do this for these families, and to be involved.