International Education News: “A view from Liberia: Abba Karnga Jr. on School Closures and the Pandemic”

International Education News: “A view from Liberia: Abba Karnga Jr. on School Closures and the Pandemic”

This interview was published originally at: https://internationalednews.com/2020/06/10/a-view-from-liberia-abba-karnga-jr-on-school-closures-and-the-pandemic/.


This week’s post features an e-mail interview conducted by Maretta Silverman with Abba Karnga Jr., Program Manager at the Luminos Fund in Liberia, where the school lockdown continues. During the Ebola crisis, Karnga also served as Director of the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign. In partnership with the Country Health Team, he created an Ebola Emergency Response program responsible for social mobilization, case identification, and distribution of emergency supplies to affected homes. In 2019, he also reflected on his own educational journey in a Luminos staff profile: The Fight for Education Equality in Liberia: Living Up to My Father’s Example. Diaries from the Frontlines from the Center for Global Development provides additional perspectives on the outbreak and school closures from Luminos Fund staff as well as staff from The Citizens Foundation.

This interview is the sixth in a series that includes posts from Scotlandfrom Chile,  from Japan, and from the Netherlands.  The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of 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.

LOWAH, LIBERIA: November 27, 2019 – Abba Karnga, center, playing a learning game with students before the Covid-19 school closures. Carielle Doe for The Luminos Fund.

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: I listen to the Liberian Ministry of Health press releases that are shared every Friday on certain radio stations. They are credible and have the latest information.

MS: What have you found most inspiring?

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.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

The fourth blog in Center for Global Development’s “Diaries from the Frontline” series examines how education organizations, including Luminos, are preparing for schools to reopen. The original blog is available at https://www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-preparing-for-school-reopening.


Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

By Maryam AkmalNikita Khosla and Ali Nadeem Sipra

More than 20 countries have started to reopen schools in the last few weeks, with more expected to follow suit. Many countries that have reopened schools have not seen a spike in infections follow. However, others, like Israel, opened schools only to close some of them soon after due to a surge in infections among students and staff. When to open schools is primarily an epidemiological question, and the evidence on child infections and transmission is still far from conclusive.

Policymakers making difficult decisions about when to reopen schools are balancing the health concerns of the pandemic against the social and economic repercussions of school closures. Ultimately, schools cannot stay closed forever and governments need to start planning for an eventual reopening, whenever that may be. CGD colleagues and others have published evidence-based guidance on how policymakers should plan for school reopening. The recommendations include engaging communities in school reopening plans, targeting resources where most needed, incentivizing children to come back to school, making school environments safe, and instituting plans to recover learning loss. Ultimately, any guidance will have to be adapted to different contexts, as protocols that are being implemented in one setting may be hard to implement in others.

Last week we looked at how two frontline education organizations, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) in Pakistan and the Luminos Fund in Liberia, are supporting their teachers and principals through the crisis. In this fourth installment of our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we highlight how TCF and Luminos are preparing their teachers, principals, and children for school reopenings.

TCF tackles reopening challenges, including ways to recover learning loss

After schools closed in March in Pakistan, TCF spoke with some of its teachers and principals to take their concerns into account while planning for an eventual reopening. Many TCF teachers and principals are proactively staying connected with kids and parents during school closures through regular calls and messages. Their primary concerns are student wellbeing, particularly students’ physical and mental health, and learning loss—all of which need to be kept in focus if schools are to work for all children once they reopen.

For many students, schools offer a temporary escape from harsh conditions at home—half of Pakistanis believe that parents beat their children more during lockdown. Some areas, disconnected from traditional information channels, still lack guidance about the disease risk; in some communities kids continue to play cricket on the streets like it’s a normal day. TCF principals and teachers, who continue to receive their salaries, have been providing information to children about how to stay safe from the virus, as well as providing emotional support so that kids are able to return to school once they reopen.

“Most children I talk to ask me when they will have their old routine back. They miss their school and class fellows,” says Naila Liaqat, a principal at a government school managed by TCF in Punjab. Another principal, Saba Parveen Kayani, at a different school in Punjab says, “When some members of our community were diagnosed with COVID-19, the student body was gripped by fear. I told my students to be strong, to wash their hands regularly, and to keep a physical distance from others to not only protect themselves but also those around them.”

A teacher at a school in Kasur, Punjab stands over a class doing work
Before schools shut down, a teacher at a TCF-operated government school delivers her lesson in Kasur, Punjab. Source: The Citizens Foundation

When TCF spoke with its faculty, the teachers and principals raised difficult questions about how to plan for reopening: If schools open in July, as currently scheduled, how will children walk three kilometers or more to school in the summer heat with temperatures soaring to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius)? If schools open in August, how will teachers cover the entire syllabus by December when the government conducts the exams? It can take four weeks after the school year begins for textbooks to become available—how will learning happen without books?

“Since schools suddenly closed in March, I have been very worried about the future of my students. How will they finish the syllabus? How will teachers manage it?” says Sana Adil, a principal at a government girls’ primary school managed by TCF in Sindh.

Other teachers and principals raised concerns about whether government schools that TCF manages under public-private partnership arrangements (roughly one fifth of its total schools) will continue to receive a sufficient government subsidy, which is conditional on enrollment numbers and test scores, if students migrate back to their native villages or test scores are low. How will schools cope with the financial blow, and will teachers be laid off? While TCF’s diversified philanthropic base has meant that the organization has never needed to consider closing schools due to lack of financial support, the current economic recession comes around Ramadan, when TCF raises more than half of its total budget. In a recent CGD survey of frontline education organizations, close to three quarters of the respondents report a drop in private or philanthropic funding during the crisis.

TCF management has also been thinking about how to maximize learning once schools reopen despite the shortened academic year, which many teachers are understandably worried about. To that end, TCF has decided to cut down the curriculum in proportion to the reduction in academic hours while trying to maintain learning goals. This is possible because the government’s curriculum contains a lot of repetition and redundancy, as well as content that is disconnected from the development of literacy and numeracy skills. For example, students might learn about Abdul Sattar Edhi, a revered Pakistani humanitarian, in social studies, English, and Urdu books; or Sindhi and Urdu books will contain the same story verbatim. TCF is planning to streamline overlapping or repetitive content to ensure learning is maximized despite the shortened school year.

TCF is aware that despite these efforts, student scores will probably take a hit—TCF will not penalize teachers or principals for that. The organization’s primary goals remain prioritizing the physical and socio-emotional health of students and staff, and promoting meaningful learning as much as possible under these complex circumstances.

Luminos prioritizes re-enrollment, remediation, and resilience

In the coming autumn, the Luminos Fund plans to enroll a new cohort of students across its three programs in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia, pending safety assessment and local government guidance. Once schools reopen in Liberia, Luminos is preparing to deliver a specialized catch-up program for the cohort of students whose program was disrupted by COVID closures.

Given the uncertainty about how the COVID-19 crisis will evolve, when schools will reopen, or how long they will stay open, Luminos’s strategy is to stay responsive, flexible, and connected to developments on the ground. Three key priorities guide the organization’s reopening strategy:

  • Re-enrollment. Conduct outreach to the most vulnerable students to encourage re-enrollment.
  • Remediation. Assess students’ learning gaps and deliver targeted remediation to help children catch up.
  • Resilience. Strengthen school systems to weather future closures and disruptions.

Luminos’s Second Chance program enrolls some of the most economically vulnerable children who have missed out on schooling due to poverty or other barriers. These children are also at high risk of not returning to school once COVID subsides. Luminos tries to incentivize enrollment, for example, by offering school lunch in Liberia. However, there is a real worry that meals alone may not be enough to encourage families to send kids back to school—these children might now be needed to help at home or to contribute economically to the household, given the income shocks brought on by the crisis. Furthermore, those students who do make it back might have a hard time catching up on lost learning.

“Each one of my students will come back to school. Their parents are already asking about it,” says Blama, a teacher with the Second Chance program. “But I think when school reopens, some children will find it difficult to catch up.”

Two teachers lead students in a game at a school in Liberia
Luminos students and staff play a learning game before schools shut down

Luminos facilitators have continued to stay in touch with students and their families, which is essential to ensure that children return to school once they reopen. Facilitators, wearing personal protective equipment, visit students to review worksheets, check on their health and the health of family members, share educational radio program schedules, and more. In addition, Luminos teachers are planning for enrollment outreach and delivering catch up lessons to prepare for reopening.

As a part of these reopening efforts, Luminos is discussing how to manage distancing (for example, smaller class sizes and/or multiple shifts), school feeding, and more. In addition, socio-emotional support for returning students is a major concern. While Luminos already provides child protection and sensitivity training for its teachers and supervisors, it plans to train teachers to identify, support, and communicate with children who are struggling psychologically due to disruptions brought on by the pandemic.

It helps that Luminos teachers are still getting paid; some teachers haven’t been so lucky. However, there is no guarantee that Luminos will be able to keep paying teachers as COVID evolves. Donor flexibility has helped Luminos adapt its operations to the crisis so far, and the organization will likely continue to need flexibility through the next 6–18 months.

“Coming out of a crisis like COVID or Ebola, there’s a high risk that many children won’t return to school,” says Gbovadeh Gbilia, head of the Education Delivery Unit at Liberia’s Ministry of Education, adding that programs that engage communities and catch up children on learning gaps play a key role in the aftermath of a crisis.

Finally, Luminos realizes that building resilience within its school systems is hard but essential. In Liberia, COVID-19 is the second public health crisis in six years to cause prolonged school closures. In Lebanon, where Luminos also works, the current academic year has already been disrupted more than once: schools had already closed for weeks in the autumn due to political protests and civil unrest. Moving forward, school systems will need to develop the agility to close and reopen flexibly, and to pivot quickly to supporting learning at home when needed.


Next week we will look at how these organizations are addressing risks faced by some of the most marginalized groups of students.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

This is the third blog in Center for Global Development’s Diaries from the Frontline series, now focusing on teachers. The original blog is available at https://www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-supporting-and-engaging-teachers-during-covid-19


Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

By Rita PerakisNikita KhoslaZia Akhter Abbas and Nadia Naviwala

Schools in most of the world have been closed for the last couple of months and most developing country governments have not yet announced plans for reopening.

Teachers are facing a great deal of uncertainty during this time about school reopenings, the impacts of closures on children and their ability to catch them up, and, fundamentally, about their own livelihoods and the economic effects of the crisis.

Following the 2008 economic crisis, there was a dip in education spending in lower-middle income countries which did not recover for years. Case studies indicate that many places did not cut teacher salaries, but may have responded by increasing workloads or pupil-teacher ratios, or freezing teacher hiring and salary increases. The economic downturn from coronavirus is expected to be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, but even if countries choose to protect teacher salaries within public budgets, private school teachers will remain vulnerable. Low-cost private schools in particular have been unable to continue paying teacher salaries with schools closed and parents unable to pay fees.

Last week we looked at how two education nonprofits are trying to sustain learning from a distance during COVID-19. This week, we are looking at how these organizations are supporting their own teachers and principals. The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and the Luminos Fund are operating in different contexts but both have been able to sustain operations and continue to support teaching staff and other personnel. Their experiences show that teachers, not buildings, are the backbone of any school system. And even while schools are closed, there is evidence that teachers are continuing to keep students engaged with learning.

The Luminos Fund: Teaching during emergencies

Teachers in Luminos’s Second Chance programs are young men and women hired from the counties and communities that Luminos serves. Similar to students, many teachers’ families in Liberia face fragile economic situations during COVID. When the COVID crisis struck, Luminos recognized the importance of keeping staff and teachers on salary even if schools closed.

First, from an educational standpoint, if Luminos laid off teachers in Liberia, it would be challenging to be ready to reopen schools or proactively re-enroll students when the crisis ends, particularly if teachers relocate to live with family members. Second, from a humanitarian standpoint, putting a hold on salaries adds enormous financial strain to an already vulnerable population. Holding salaries would actively harm poor families.

Thanks to increased flexibility from its core funders, Luminos has been able to continue paying teachers their full salaries. This support has also enabled Luminos to pivot quickly and shift staff from core classroom programming to providing learning materials, rice, soap, and detergent to students’ homes in Liberia.

Teachers have gone above and beyond to help students continue learning during lockdown.

Varney is a Second Chance teacher who lives and teaches in a rural village in Liberia. When the government issued guidance to limit gatherings to ten people at the start of coronavirus, he continued teaching his class of 30 children, broken into smaller groups of ten or less. Since the full lockdown began and Luminos began distributing learning materials (which were designed with input from some of Luminos’s teachers), Varney walks by students’ houses, keeping a distance, to give them lessons and make sure they have completed them. He says his students are eager to return to school. Varney and his family, like many teachers, have also been personally affected by COVID: they’ve faced economic hardship and are eating less.

Another teacher, James, also goes door-to-door to check on his Second Chance students—from a distance—to ensure they are making use of the books that Luminos provided. He says his students’ families are most concerned about food security, and notes that his own family is also eating less during COVID. He is confident his students will return to school when it reopens but says it will be challenging for them to catch up. He says he hopes this academic year can be extended to ensure these children “come out victoriously.”

Other Second Chance teachers do not live in the communities where they teach and, due to the lockdown and curfews, have few options to ensure their students are making progress on the reading and math materials that Luminos provided, or help students on a day-to-day basis. In these cases, Luminos supervisors check in with the students weekly.

Luminos’s experiences could provide lessons for Liberia more broadly and other countries. George Werner, former Minister of Education in Liberia and a member of the Luminos Fund’s advisory board, recently observed that the organization’s model for recruiting and training teachers could be scaled to build a cadre of “emergency teachers” to work alongside mainstream systems and provide rapid response capacity to get children back to school after crises like COVID.

“The Luminos Fund hires high potential young people who are often only Grade 10 graduates and provides them with three weeks of intensive training followed by weekly in-classroom coaching,” Werner says. “For countries with massively stretched school systems and average class sizes already in the 50+ range, this is an effective, practical auxiliary option to educate children.

“Education is in an emergency now worldwide, but for many countries in Africa, education has been in an emergency for decades. Normalcy does not apply in an emergency. All emergencies need radical thinking.”

TCF: Supporting female teachers

Imagine writing your employer a thank you letter for paying your salary. That’s what happened at TCF last month. When salaries were disbursed in the days before May 1, principals and teachers responded with letters of appreciation, including messages like, “When our world is in lockdown, jobs and salaries are not safe, our organization did not abandon us… Even in this lockdown, we were given our salaries at our doorsteps in a respectful manner. It is rare to find such examples among other organizations.”

TCF employs only women on its faculty and is the largest private employer of women in Pakistan. Often, these are young women who got permission from their families to work as teachers because it was seen as a safe and respectable way to engage in employment, even in a small village or katchi abadi (informal settlement or slum). Now with COVID-19, they may be the only ones in their households who are still receiving paychecks on time (or at all) when their husbands, brothers, or fathers may not be. This impacts their role and the way their employment is perceived by their families.

Continuing to pay and support teachers and principals has enabled TCF to concentrate on ensuring that children in their schools are cared for and have access to learning materials. Like a group of Teach for Pakistan fellows who evolved theidea of a WhatsApp-based school, TCF school leaders have, on their own initiative, been collecting the phone numbers of their students and forming WhatsApp classrooms using videos, voice notes, and text messages. “Our WhatsApp group has a timetable. Teachers assign tasks based on the timetable, and students share their work on the group, which teachers give them feedback on,” said Sumaira Aslam, a principal in inner-city Karachi. “There are many students who don’t use WhatsApp. For them, we send them the same tasks over SMS. For students we haven’t reached, we have put a sign on the gate and asked teachers to convey the message throughout the community.”

Sajida Ambreen, a principal at another school in Karachi, has made students responsible for collecting the phone numbers of their friends. She monitors the participation of students and teachers. “Girls have the strongest participation,” she said, “The boys are busy. But they can listen to the voice note lectures when they get off from work.” She said despite the lockdown boys were working as shopkeepers, drivers, tailors, or doing overnight shifts at the nearby textile mills. “In our community, kids support the parents to run the house. Some parents have just let go and the kids pay their own fees. Others have fathers who are ill.”

TCF principals connecting with students via WhatsApp.

These programs are led by TCF’s principals. To reach the many students who do not have mobile phones or internet, another principal posted notices on the school gates and enlisted the chowkidhar (gatekeeper) to deliver the message to families. Alongside these faculty-led initiatives, TCF is designing learning materials that can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points in the community.

Although families pay a small fee for children to attend schools, TCF operates mostly through philanthropic donations. The current economic recession, combined with the cancellation of fundraising events, could be a threat to TCF’s ongoing ability to cover costs. However, TCF’s philanthropic base is diversified, with a mix of local, diaspora, corporate, foundation, high net worth individuals, and crowd-funded philanthropy. Also, a large proportion of giving to TCF is motivated by zakat, a religious requirement that Muslims must donate 2.5 percent of their wealth. Zakat is calculated as a proportion of wealth, rather than income, so it is less affected by economic cycles of growth and recession. In these uncertain times, these aspects of TCF’s funding model can help protect their large school network.


Next week, we will take a deeper look at how these organizations are planning to prepare teachers, school leaders, and children for school reopenings.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

This blog is the second installment of Center for Global Development‘s new series: Diaries from the Frontline. The blog is available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-distance-learning-offline-children and included below.


Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

By Maryam Akmal, Marriam Musa and Maretta Silverman

With schools out, countries around the world are grappling with distance learning initiatives to keep kids learning and engaged. Distance learning is a big challenge in low-tech environments where children have minimal access to digital media, though many digitally advanced countries are struggling as well. According to CGD’s COVID education policy tracker, only 29 percent of low-income countries are providing some kind of distance learning program for their students. But even in low-income countries that do have distance learning programs, many students might be left out due to poor access to the TV, radio, or internet. For example, a new survey from Kenya suggests that only one in five children are accessing online learning during school closures. In addition, language of content, access to books at home, and parental literacy and involvement can further exacerbate inequalities.

In the second post in our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we continue to examine how frontline education organizations are adjusting to the crisis. Last week we took a look at how The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which operates more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan, and the Luminos Fund, which  provides accelerated learning for children who have missed out on school due to poverty, crisis, or discrimination in countries including Liberia, shifted to providing food and relief to families. In this post, we examine how TCF and Luminos are supporting distance learning efforts for the students they serve.

TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan TV Show in Pakistan

Less than a month after Pakistan closed schools, the prime minister announced a new state television channel dedicated to lessons aligned with the national curriculum, PTV TeleSchool. It was the first time in decades that Pakistan had a local language children’s TV channel. Television was a natural choice. Roughly two-thirds of households in Pakistan own a television set. In contrast, the percent of households that have a radio and internet connection are 6.4 percent and 11.8 percent respectively.  While TCF has found its teachers taking the initiative to use a variety of media, including WhatsApp, SMS, and word-of-mouth to ensure the continuity of learning in communities it serves, television stands out as a medium to reach and engage a large number of children from schools throughout the country.

Now came the harder question: how do you get school from a TV? For TCF, the answer was simple: You don’t. Lessons from education response efforts in West Africa after the Ebola crisis emphasize that education’s primary role during a crisis should be that of positive engagement, mitigating psychosocial impacts of the disaster, and establishing routine—not just ensuring the continuity of academic learning.

In response to the government’s call for academic content for the TV channel, TCF adapted its play-based curriculum for a new filmed-at-home-but-made-for-television show, Ilm Ka Aangan (The Courtyard of Knowledge). The content focuses on building functional literacy and numeracy through engaging activities, with a key focus on socio-emotional learning.

Figure 1. TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan uses play-based learning and storytelling to keep children engaged

Source: The Citizens Foundation

The show uses storytelling, which can be an effective way to not only cultivate literacy and social skills, but also explain concepts from science and social studies while keeping kids engaged. For example, the story “Emaan the Scientist” is about a little girl who wants to fly, and illustrates the scientific method. After several failed attempts, her mother reassures her that if she keeps experimenting, as scientists do, then someday she will fly. Eventually, she does, with a hot air balloon. The protagonist, along with the show’s host, also offer positive role models for little girls watching. Despite the effectiveness of storytelling, only 3.5 percent of kids in Punjab have 3 or more books to read at home.

Recognizing that children of many ages are watching at once, the show’s content is multi-grade with a focus on basic concepts targeted at ages 5-10. This is in contrast to other distance learning content being aired in Pakistan right now that is structured in a grade-wise manner—despite the fact that many students are already behind their grade level. Data from the Annual Status of Education Report suggest 75 percent of grade 3 children in urban Pakistan cannot read a simple story in their local language at the grade 2 level.

The learning doesn’t stop once the show ends. The host assigns “homework,” for example playing a game to learn a concept or solving a math problem. However, the most popular homework is the host asking children to submit a drawing based on the episode.

The day after the launch, the show received 20,000 text messages from a wide range of urban and rural areas, a response that has fed into how the program is evolving. Since the most marginalized children will not have access to TV, mobile phones, or electricity, including most of the communities that TCF serves, the organization is also piloting a purely offline version of Ilm ka Aangan: an edutainment magazine focused on building early grade skills through do-it-yourself activities, stories, and comics, which can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points, such as grocery stores. Anticipating that school closures may be extended, TCF is designing similar magazines for secondary school students. For now, Ilm Ka Aangan, through television and the offline magazine, seems to be providing much needed engagement, learning, and a sense of routine for millions of children stuck at home.

The Luminos Fund’s Efforts to Support Learning at Home

After schools closed in Liberia, the government launched a radio schooling initiative. Unlike Pakistan, Liberia has a relatively higher rate of radio penetration and lower rate of TV access. Roughly half of households possess a radio, whereas roughly one-fifth possess a television and approximately one-tenth of the population has access to electricity. However, that means that while radio schooling is more scalable, half of Liberian households still may not have access. And even among those households with access to a radio, children might not have access to learning materials such as books and stationery.

Luminos has sought to provide access to some of those learning materials. In late March and early May, Luminos distributed learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students for home-based learning, including readers, math workbooks, pencils, and pencil sharpeners, as a part of relief packages that also included soap and detergent for students’ families.  Through this process, Luminos facilitators found that in most cases, the materials they provided are the only books the family has.

A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home
Figure 2. A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home

Radio or texting might work elsewhere,” says Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager for Liberia, “but not where we work. Most of our parents don’t have radios, and kids shouldn’t gather around one anyway due to distancing. If we sent a text, many of our parents couldn’t read it. The best thing Luminos can do is distribute the readers, worksheets – learning materials – for students to work on at home, speak to the families, and then for our facilitators or supervisors do their best to monitor.”

Apart from providing textbooks, Luminos Fund facilitators have tried to stay engaged with students and ensure that they are using the learning materials. Varney, a facilitator who lives and teaches in a rural village in Bomi, walks by students’ houses—at a distance—to tell them the lesson for that day and to ensure that children are using the books. Then, that afternoon or the next day, he checks to make sure they have completed it.

One father, who is literate, says of the Luminos reading materials, “My daughter can read the whole book now. Even last night she was working on it.”

The initiative has had challenges. First, not all facilitators are able to check in with their students, especially those who live in faraway villages. Second, distributing materials in remote communities is time-consuming and can be stressful when local community members are suspicious of visitors wearing medical masks and personal protective equipment, especially due to heightened distrust of others from experience with Ebola.

Despite these efforts to promote distance learning, facilitators and parents have expressed concerns that students will fall behind, especially students who were struggling already. For now, everyone is worried about what will happen to this particular cohort of students, and eager for the virus to pass so schools can reopen and life can return to normal.


Next week we’ll take a look at what TCF and Luminos teachers are doing and how operations are being sustained during the crisis.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its new blog series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.


Diaries from the Frontline: How Education Organizations Are Providing Food and Relief during COVID-19

By Rita Perakis, Nikita Khosla, Wajiha Bari

It’s hard to grasp what 1.3 billion kids being out of school means for education systems, families, and children’s welfare. While CGD has been conducting research to advise governments on policy responses to the pandemic, we wanted to supplement big-picture analyses with an on-the-ground look at the reality of operating under the lockdown for education providers in low- and lower-middle income countries, and their roles in supporting the communities that are most affected.

“Diaries from the Frontline” is a new blog series that will feature stories from education organizations about what the crisis means for them and the underprivileged communities in which they’re working, as well as the ways that they are helping children to stay engaged in learning or helping families to cope.

For many households, the urgent need is basic sustenance. The World Food Programme anticipates that without action the number of people suffering acute hunger will almost double to 265 million. Social protection programs have grown rapidly since the start of the pandemic, although there are concerns they will miss the informal sector—80 percent of all workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, millions of children are missing out on school meals—a critical supplement for families in low-income countries, where food averages 60 percent of household expenditures.

In response, some education organizations are filling in the gaps and providing relief far beyond their usual operations. This week, we are featuring stories from two nonprofit education providers who were serving some of the world’s most vulnerable children before COVID-19 hit and have shifted to providing new kinds of support: the Luminos Fund, where Nikita works as senior director of programs, and The Citizens Foundation, where Wajiha heads the department for volunteers and higher education. 

The Luminos Fund works in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon (with Syrian refugees) providing “Second Chance” education—programs focused on accelerated learning for children who’ve missed schooling because of crisis, poverty, or discrimination. More than 90 percent of Luminos students advance to mainstream government schools after completing the Luminos program.

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is one of the world’s largest networks of independently run schools, operating more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan. TCF hires only women as teachers and principals, making it the largest private employer of women in Pakistan, and maintains a 1:1 ratio of girl students to boys.

Luminos’s experience distributing relief packages to communities in Liberia

According to the World Food Programme, 83.8 percent of Liberia’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day and a quarter of Liberian families spend over 65 percent of their total expenditures on food. The Luminos Fund began working in Liberia in 2016, at the end of the Ebola outbreak, and many of its classrooms are in the communities where the poorest and hungriest out-of-school children live. A necessary part of the program has been providing midday meals: Luminos provides a parent of a student in the class with ingredients including rice and beans and pays them a monthly stipend to prepare lunch.

On March 16, when Liberia confirmed its first COVID case and closed schools, all Luminos classes were put on hold and Luminos pivoted quickly to providing relief for families. The following week, in addition to distributing learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students, Luminos distributed soap and detergent for students’ families, the first time the organization undertook a mass distribution of this kind. Luminos has received special government permission to distribute these items during the lockdown.

Villagers could not congregate due to physical distancing guidelines, so team members spoke with families individually about their children’s education and to share government health guidance. When distributing supplies in late March, team members wore face masks and surgical gloves, and maintained reasonable distance with others. Taking the time to speak with families and answer their questions allowed the Luminos team to help calm fears within communities.

Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager in Liberia (who previously directed the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign), describes initial challenges with the distribution due to rumors in the villages:

“At first, people ran away from us—adults and children alike—and people were arguing, even though they know us! It was tense. Once we explained why we were there and our purpose, the families were very appreciative. I wasn’t surprised by people’s suspicions. It reminded me of working during Ebola when false rumors were flying that Ebola was a joke or that doctors were giving bad vaccines, and everyone was afraid…During the March distribution, it took us an hour in one community simply to relax everyone enough to then distribute the materials.”

A second emergency distribution in May includes additional learning materials, soap, drums to store water, and a bag of rice for each family. Some Second Chance parents describe much more difficult conditions, with no one in the family able to work, especially since the country entered a strict government-mandated lockdown. One out-of-work father of 11 says, “It has gotten really tough for us. We used to eat rice twice a day, but now we eat cassava in the morning and rice in the evening. My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school and eating.”

Many staple foods in Liberia are imported, including rice, the population’s core food, so the country is particularly vulnerable to shortages in times of crisis.

“Luminos could not use our regular wholesaler for the rice because the Liberian government had purchased all her stock,” says Nikita Khosla, Luminos senior director of programs. “COVID made it harder for us to source rice, but this is not the first time we’ve run into issues procuring rice and other basic inputs in Liberia.”

Luminos was able to procure the rice and expects that a bag can feed a large family for two to three weeks. Abba says that Luminos’s pivot towards providing the relief that families need has been only natural: “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.”

TCF’s experience with cash transfers in Pakistan

Over 25 years, TCF has built a network of schools in 700 locations across Pakistan where children didn’t have access to schools. Based on their financial means, families pay somewhere between six cents and $3.80 a month for a child to attend a TCF school; the $12 cost per child is covered mostly through local and diaspora philanthropy. In previous national emergencies, TCF has mobilized to provide relief goods. To respond to COVID, TCF is prioritizing cash transfers.

As parts of Pakistan started going into lockdown on March 23, TCF alumni and families started contacting TCF for help. TCF quickly established a partnership with JazzCash, the largest telecom in Pakistan, with an aim to deliver cash transfers to 100,000 of the highest-need individuals in the highest-need communities. Reaching those with the most need, especially during a transportation lockdown, was a challenge that required the help of a nationwide network of over 20,000 alumni and 12,500 female faculty who live in affected communities.

TCF used its socioeconomic data on families to identify clusters of need. To identify beneficiaries within communities, TCF then gathered information through a short survey administered by volunteer alumni and faculty. “While we were surveying and identifying needy families in a slum in the remote village of Surbander, Gwadar, we came across a woman—a widow whose son had lost his job at the gas station amid the lockdown. She shared that they didn’t have anything to cook for dinner and was surprised that we had come so far to this part of the village to help,” says Ms. Farida Bibi, principal at a TCF school in Gwadar, Balochistan.

Because of a lack of phones, literacy, or connectivity, surveys often had to be done door-to-door. TCF provided volunteers with safety guidelines and 250 rupees ($1.50) to buy masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and bottled water, which was important for handwashing in many communities that don’t have running water. In communities with positive COVID-19 cases, volunteers were asked to wear an extra layer of clothing, plastic to cover shoes, a head covering, and gloves.

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Volunteers identified 200 to 600 households in each community, including by consulting with local organizations and authorities to identify households outside of their networks. The transfer amounts were 2,500 rupees (about $15) on average, the estimated cost for a family of six to buy basic food supplies and soap for two weeks.

“Upon receiving the cash, people purchase groceries from local vendors, which helps in boosting economic activity in the community,” says Riaz Kamlani, executive vice president for outcomes at TCF, who is leading TCF’s COVID-19 relief efforts. There may only be one shopping area or shop in a community, and, due to social distancing measures in place, TCF had to stagger the pick-ups. Those who had the least food in their pantries (proven via a photo or self-reported) went first. In Gambat, a village in interior Sindh, TCF alumni helped 30 people collect cash transfers one at a time in a day, a total of 300 people over 10 days.

An additional challenge was a lack of mobile phones, since transfers are typically made through phones. In one community surveyed, only 70 out of 1,100 people had mobile phones. TCF convinced JazzCash to share the transaction IDs with on-the-ground volunteers, who then facilitated the collection by matching national ID cards. In one area, due to the lockdown, the JazzCash shop couldn’t officially open so volunteers made makeshift arrangements by turning a garage into a collection shop and processing transactions there instead. A few locals volunteered a tent where beneficiaries waited so that social distancing was maintained throughout the collection process. Since April 1, TCF has helped over 18,000 households in 67 communities; 82 percent of those helped are daily wage workers.

Luminos’s work in Liberia and TCF’s work in Pakistan since the pandemic hit show how education providers are stepping in to provide immediate relief in the communities they serve. Both used their links to communities to mobilize quickly, build trust, and support the hardest to reach. Next week we will look at how they have transitioned to providing distance learning, even in settings with little or no technology.  


Learn more the Luminos Fund’s response during COVID: https://luminosfund.org/covid-19s-impact-on-our-classrooms-and-mission/

Learn more about Center for Global Development: www.cgdev.org

Learn more about The Citizens Foundation: www.tcf.org.pk

Announcing the Luminos Fund Advisory Board

Announcing the Luminos Fund Advisory Board

In April 2020, the Luminos Fund convened the inaugural meeting of our new Advisory Board. Our Advisory Board features some of the brightest minds in international education, including former African Ministers of Education and the former Executive Director of UNICEF. Members include Carol Bellamy, Dr. Alex Eble, Susannah Hares, Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, George Werner, and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop. The meeting was planned first for Washington, DC, but our group convened online due to COVID-19.

At the meeting, Mubuso Zamchiya, Luminos Managing Director, began by offering remarks about today’s unprecedented leadership moment in global education. The full text is below:


An Unprecedented Leadership Moment in Global Education

Remarks to the Advisory Board by Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director, The Luminos Fund

Just about two months ago, on the 10th of February, an article was published in Mail & Guardian, a prominent South African newspaper. The title of the article was The urgency of rethinking education – for Africa and the World. The piece was authored by Audray Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, and Sahle-Work Zedwe, current President of Ethiopia. These two global leaders had a pressing message they desired to share.

One does not need to be super analytical, they said, to realize that as far as education goes, the world is off-track. They shared some alarming statistics. “UNESCO data shows that 258 million children are still not attending school, two-thirds of the 411 million children worldwide who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills are in school, and there are 750 million illiterate adults, two thirds of whom are women… The international community needs to act,” they urged, “and it needs to act now.”

The Director General of UNESCO and the President of Ethiopia were not only advocating for a closing of these learning and literacy gaps. They were also championing the idea that education needs some rethinking. A rethinking of what we learn and how we learn it. Especially in light of the present learning crisis and the fact that status quo education systems have not been able to meet the learning needs of all children, youth, and adults. Moreover, rapid change associated with globalization and technology advancement has shaped a learning crisis that exacerbates two major challenges identified by Rebecca Winthrop – namely skills inequality (wealthier kids getting a better education) and skills uncertainty (a disconnect between today’s education and the future of work). We need education models, argued Azoulay and Zedwe, that give young people the tools to address these challenges. “Today’s world,” they added, “is not only more interconnected, but also increasingly complex, uncertain, and fragile.”

And today, on April 15, 2020, we have firsthand experience on just how fragile the world truly is. In the 65 days since this article was published, our global society has been brought to its knees, and the global economy to a grinding halt. As countries work desperately to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the ratio of out-of-school children completely flip. It is no longer one-in-ten children who are not in school, but nine out of ten – an unbelievable 1.6 billion children. Thus, if we thought the world had a learning crisis in February, we now know that we are in the midst of a learning calamity.  

Some clever work by Harry Patrinos and others at the World Bank offers an interesting lens into three possible scenarios that may result in lower levels of learning. Particularly for children who before COVID-19 were already marginalized within education systems and were experiencing high levels of learning poverty. Firstly, as the pandemic continues, almost all children are likely to experience learning loss. Secondly, as time moves on, and schools remain closed the effect of socioeconomic inequalities will increase the percentage of low-performers, as lower-income families struggle to access remote learning resources for their children. Thirdly, as household income shocks put additional strain on families, many children may actually dropout of formal learning completely and never return to school even after the crisis.

Now, this is a calamity because – as Dzingai Mutumbuka often notes – prior to the Coronavirus, many education systems in the Global South had only the slimmest chance of fulfilling the expectations of Sustainable Development Goal 4. COVID-19 has effectively suffocated those hopes.

It is a calamity because – as George Werner has regularly warned – even in the better times pre-virus, African education systems had woefully inadequate data-collection infrastructure and capabilities. Thus, rendering education reform and decision-making both anchorless and rudderless.

It is a calamity because – as Susannah Hares has pointed out – COVID-19 is likely to affect the education outcomes of girls and boys in adverse and different ways. Keeping girls in school can be transformative, both for them and the next generation. Every additional year in school increases a girl’s future income generation by 10 to 20 percent. More educated mothers can better care for their children. Staying in school also reduces the potential for early marriage, and generally reduces incidences of sexual abuse, disease, and early pregnancy. During a pandemic, household income shocks can result in girls almost entirely forgoing traditional classroom learning activities to engage in household chores or income-generating pursuits with their parents and caregivers. Households with limited resources tend to send boys to school instead of girls. As Alex Eble’s research demonstrates, this is especially the case in communities where girls already face stereotype bias regarding their ability to learn.

It is a calamity because interruptions to learning can take years to recover from. For example, reports suggests that it took two years for children in New Orleans to recover lost learning after Hurricane Katrina, and sixteen years for children living in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

The pressure is therefore great upon education ministers and government delivery systems. What must they do to counteract the negative effects of Coronavirus on children’s learning?

Well, George Werner offers four lessons learned from Ebola that can apply to COVID-19. He argues that ministers should:

  • Firstly, fight the disease by providing age-appropriate information to help students and their families understand the pandemic and its risks.
  • Secondly, deploy alternative out-of-school and distance learning solutions as rapidly as possible to prevent dislocation and to keep children and parents engaged with the school system.
  • Thirdly, coordinate by tearing down the walls within government, and between government and the civil sector, so that children have access nutrition and healthcare, are protected from abuse, and can continue learning. 
  • Fourthly, when schools finally open, ministers should act on the opportunity to implement radical reforms that can dramatically improve education delivery.

Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares add that (i) ministers should be prepared for school closures to last months, not weeks; (ii) they should adapt their plans, but stick to their broad mission and key goals; (iii) they should protect their people, both by observing health and safety protocols, including social distancing in service delivery, but also by addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth; (iv) they should communicate, motivate, and engage learners, parents, and educators in productive ways; and (v) they should collect evidence, and learn from the actions that they take. 

As governments and the international community respond to our new heightened learning calamity, Rebecca Winthrop identifies a selection of threats and opportunities. In terms of threats, she cautions that (i) distance learning practices may reinforce teaching and learning approaches that we already know do not work well; (ii) educators may not be adequately supported and may become overwhelmed; (iii) child protection may be harder to safeguard; (iv) learning inequality may increase significantly; and (v) poor experiences in education technology during the pandemic may make adoption of good solutions more difficult later.

However, the pandemic may also result in opportunities: (i) blended learning techniques may more broadly be tried and tested; (ii) teachers and schools may receive more respect, appreciation, and support for their important role in society; (iii) quality teaching and learning materials may be better curated and more widely used; (iv) teacher collaboration may grow and improve learning; and (v) the crisis may help us all better come together across historical boundaries.

Now, this cannon of insight and advice points to some important conclusions. In order to transform the existing learning calamity to a learning opportunity, governments, their non-government partners, and the international community must exhibit the type of leadership that empowers education systems to build back better. And building back better, as we have noted, requires laser focus on three important objectives:

  • Relief: ensuring that children, parents, educators, and local communities have what they need to survive the crisis.
  • Recovery: executing the plans, preparation, and processes that will enable children to get back to school safely and productively as soon as the pandemic ends.
  • Resilience: weaving innovation, shock-absorbency, and agility into the fabric of the education system so that it can ramp up and ramp down as needed while still delivering quality learning.

These three Rs are challenging expectations in any time. And they require special leadership. The type of leadership, like that of Dzingai Mutumbuka, who was able to sow the seeds of effective learning under the exposed trees of the African bush during the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. Seeds, which during the first ten years of Zimbabwean independence, sprouted into one of Africa’s best education systems, and one of the few to ever achieve universal primary enrollment.      

It requires leadership like that of Carol Bellamy, who during her tenure as Executive Director of UNICEF bravely prioritized and inspired the world to pursue five major objectives: (i) immunizing every child; (ii) getting all girls and boys into school; (iii) getting all schools to offer quality basic education; (iii) reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and its impact on young people; (iv) fighting for the protection of children from violence and exploitation; and (v) introducing early childhood programs in every country.  

This type of leadership certainly must manifest within government. But it is also needed within the non-government organizations that also play a key role in supporting and advancing children’s education. Organizations like the Luminos Fund. Thus, as we galvanize our hearts and minds and ready our hands and feet in response to the world’s learning crisis and calamity, we at the Luminos Fund could not be more encouraged. Encouraged because we are surrounded and supported by such an illustrious and accomplished Advisory Board. Leaders with the right knowledge, experience, and expertise to guide Luminos and help us make the greatest possible difference in such difficult times as these. Friends, it is our great delight and humble privilege to welcome you to the Luminos Fund Advisory Board. On behalf of our entire team and the children we serve, thank you for your support in our mission and work.


To learn more about our Advisory Board, click here.


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+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

Luminos is supporting students during COVID-19

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