What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

This blog was first published on the Education for All blog.

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. www.luminosfund.org/leadership-series.

I wonder if you have had the privilege of watching or reading President Nelson Mandela’s stunning 2005 address at the Arctic concert in Tromsø, Norway. If not, I encourage you to stop and watch. To me, the Tromsø speech stands out for its uncanny relevance to our immediate times.

Madiba began by underscoring that our world remains sorely divided. Hope and despair are paradoxically juxtaposed, sitting as closely together as the two sides of a fifty cent coin. One side boasts leapfrog gains in science and technology. The other side laments far too many children dying unnecessarily for lack of medicine and that millions of children are still out of school.

With the July 2005 G8 meetings then in the foreground, Mandela reminded his audience that much of our common future depends on the actions and plans of world’s highest decision makers. “We now need leadership, vision, and political courage,” the former President expounded with the signature raspy gravitas of his indefatigable spirit.

Then, while casting a gentle, fatherly eye across the gathered crowd, Madiba raised a somber question concerning the AIDS pandemic:

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”

Nelson Mandela

An education crisis of unseen proportions

Today, fifteen years later, in the midst of a global pandemic and catastrophic moment in education, we need not listen hard at all to hear the clear, steady echo of President Mandela’s words from Tromsø. As it did then, his clarion call should prick our consciences, rally our creativity, and mobilize our voices to make the right choices for all children whose learning has been turned upside down by COVID-19.

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. And yet, the novel Coronavirus is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. For education ministers and leaders in disaster-prone regions, the ability to lead through crisis with agility is an active, ongoing skillset.

Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, and resilience in education delivery. And, even the best leadership is lost without funding, and that is where today’s funding leaders like the Global Partnership for Education are truly on the vanguard. The emergency COVID-19 response funding that GPE is making available is exactly the support education leaders need to push through the hard process of returning to school safely and, ultimately, building education back better.

A new video series to learn from proven leaders

What can we learn from education leaders and philanthropists who have not turned their backs in past crises and, instead, navigated successfully through the breach? These are precisely the topics and themes of a forthcoming video interview series, Education Leadership through Crisis, which I have the honor to host.

We launch on Thursday, September 24 with a live webinar that will explore leadership lessons that have emerged from Liberia and New Orleans’ contrasting education recovery journeys where, respectively, the Ebola crisis and Hurricane Katrina disrupted learning for millions of children. Neerav Kingsland, Managing Director, the City Fund and former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans; George Werner, former Minister of Education, Liberia; and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution will share their personal leadership lessons.

The series will continue in the following weeks, featuring discussions with esteemed global leaders from across government, the private sector and civil society, including luminaries such as Arne Duncan, former U.S. Education Secretary; Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe; Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of African Leadership Group; and Erin Ganju, Managing Director of Echidna Giving.

Alice Albright wrote in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases spiked around the globe, that “The Global Partnership for Education was created out of a belief that in the face of great challenges, we are stronger together.”

As the COVID-19 crisis is testing the next generation of leaders across education and beyond, I am honored to amplify the voices of those who have triumphed in the face of past crises. Indeed, it is clear at this dark moment that we need to lean on each other’s wisdom if we are to have a fighting chance of providing quality education for all.

Webinar: What the Return to School after Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola Epidemic Can Teach Us in the Current Moment

Webinar: What the Return to School after Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola Epidemic Can Teach Us in the Current Moment

Thursday, September 24, 2020, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. EDT
Zoom Webinar – Register here

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. How can historically slow-moving education systems turn on a dime? What can leaders across the public and private sector do to help children recover from COVID-19 learning loss—and lift children out of learning poverty?

The Coronavirus pandemic is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history—such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Liberia after Ebola—to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, reform, and resilience in education delivery. 

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons learned on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. We are honored to launch with this webinar featuring three unique education leaders.

Guest Speakers

  • Neerav Kingsland, Managing Partner, The City Fund
  • George Werner, Former Minister of Education, Liberia
  • Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Co-Director of the Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution

Moderated by

  • Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director, The Luminos Fund

Please join us. Register online at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_olxlTCCAThKAefhJviG9Wg.

Now in its fourth year, the Luminos Fund’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, implementers, and allies around the subjects of education and international development.

Last Mile Teachers

Last Mile Teachers

This Opinion was posted originally on Inter Press Service at http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/07/last-mile-teachers/.


By George K. Werner and Caitlin Baron

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.

Emmanuel, a Luminos teacher, with his class in Loweh, Liberia (2019)
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.


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