The Great COVID-19/School Inequality Edition

Limited re-opening threatens to reinforce inequity, and how a secondary school in Africa is handling coronavirus closure.

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In this edition: (1) Abukloi Foundation takes stock of the closure as the school year looks to remain largely shuttered in the wake of coronavirus outbreaks across the world. This may reinforce existing inequities. (2) Dominic Burkett, friend of the newsletter and co-founder of Marquee Consulting, comments on the impact, more generally, that COVID-19 may have on universities in the U.S. (3) Simon Ateba, publisher of Today News Africa, comments on the medium-long term impact on Africa.


Schools across the world look at the question of re-opening this Fall. In many places, distance and “blended” learning models are the probable solution. This may reinforce existing inequities, globally and domestically. Moreover, in the U.S., as we will explore, universities are facing a “shift in the landscape of higher education” comparable to the period after the Second World War or the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Distance learning in South Sudan

Abukloi Foundation, the secondary school operating in South Sudan for which I am on the board, is taking stock of its closure as the school year looks to remain largely shuttered in the wake of coronavirus outbreaks across the world.

Across South Sudan, there are 2,450 cases of COVID-19, as of this writing, according to John Hopkins University researchers.

The South Sudan educational minister has not decided, as of last week, whether or not to open schools. But there was some speculation that he might reopen schools only for Senior 4s to study for national exams. Abukloi has ninety-three senior fours. The exams are central for students to get into universities, which is nationally important as the young country limps along, hoping to develop. Educational advancement is one of the few areas to promise possibility for the young country. The closures complicate matters for educational advancements. Since most students of Abukloi do not have books, let alone stable internet or computers, online studies are nowhere near the option they are for rich countries like the U.S. The concern is that students will fall further behind students from rich places who are less dramatically impacted by in-person school closures, not that re-opening in-person attendance is a viable option.

Angelo Maker, founder of Abukloi Foundation, emigrated to the U.S. during the Bush administration, as one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. At fundraising events, he often speaks about having to learn by drawing with sticks in the dirt, as well as his desire to ensure that other South Sudanese have better opportunities for education. He founded the school, with some support, and has attempted to do just that. The school, which is always balancing a delicate pirouette of funding and mission, will take a hit from this virus.

Inequality of access

This underscores a troubling and perhaps common point across disadvantaged countries. The access to the prerequisites for online learning will elude some regions and countries more than others. This is particularly true for poor regions with unstable internet and infrequent computer access and for high population areas.

In Pakistan, argued one economist, a long distance or blended learning situation would put the country, which has a large school-age population and more than 200,000 schools, in “unchartered territory.” Writing about Pakistan’s educational atmosphere in March, Faisal Bari, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lahore University of Management Sciences, commented that if the school closures last longer than a few months the changes to account for the resulting “educational disruption” would need to be large.

Bari writes:

Elite private-sector institutions might be able to shift to online services or hybrid models, but for most Pakistanis, who do not have internet access or will not have the resources to have internet access, the shift is not possible, even if we designed an effective education delivery system. A solution here would require much deeper thinking.

Solutions developed in higher-income countries might not be of immense help for us here.

Share The Stringer by Daniel Mollenkamp

Students in Pakistan are marching for the cancellation of online classes and the reduction of university fees, as they view limited access to internet, an expression of inequality, as a vitiating factor for remote learning. To assert my own view: the fees, a common practice among universities in the U.S. as well, scan as a dubious practice during the outbreak.

The U.S. and higher ed

In the U.S., questions about safe, sound, and racially just re-openings are as vibrant as ever. The disparities that function at the international level also track domestically, though there is some nuanced differences.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are demanding re-openings as soon as possible, whatever the cost. DeVos has stressed the “flexibility” of CDC guidelines in pushing for re-opening, and Trump has commented that children are unlikely to get coronavirus. DeVos has even commented that, "There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them," according to CNN. If they mean by this that schoolchildren are not likely to spread the virus, researchers from University of Texas at Austin, in a recent report, would seem to disagree. Activists in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix are pushing for safe and equitable re-openings.

The economy has taken hits from the coronavirus outbreak, and the administration has helmed one of the worst responses to the outbreak from a western “developed” nation. Questions remain as to wether the U.S. could muster herd immunity status even with a vaccine, due to the prominence of conspiracy thinking and pseudo-science. Economic recovery and future American competitiveness rely on a successful handling of these issues, as many commentators appear to understand. Concerns remain that the impact of the virus will be to reinforce existing structural inequalities in education, in addition to exposing children and teachers to the potentially lethal virus.

School re-openings are tied to the health of the economy, which is of vital importance for a president seeking re-election, particularly one with approval ratings as low Trump’s. As inducement, the Senate Republicans bill offered up $70 bil in support for re-opening K-12 education in public (and private) schools, while the Council of Chief State School Officers has suggested safely re-opening could require more like $245 bil in expenses. If the schools re-open, it would seem, they will re-open without the safety measures which under-ride the, admittedly, relatively good arguments for re-opening schools. The funding would have to come from the states or the local governments, or some alternative disbursement of the approved federal funds to states that privilege in-person re-opening. To buy this argument, presumably, we would have to believe that schools in all fifty states will locate and redirect the funds to re-opening, or else we’re facing a patchwork landscape of some places with open schools and others without in-person schooling. And that’s granting all the argument’s premises.

Dominic Burkett, friend of the newsletter and co-founder of Marquee Consulting, commented on the impact, more generally, that COVID-19 may have on universities in the U.S.

Burkett argued, in a message to me this weekend, that COVID-19 represents a shift, comparable to the 2008 financial crisis or the close of the Second World War, for institutions that are dependent upon endowment investments and on-campus delivery of services as part of their projections, fees, and expectations. The reliance of institutions on endowment capital to cover operational and budgeting expenses will “remain volatile, raising questions as to whether this intergenerational equity for future groups of students will continue,” Burkett said.

Marquee Consulting predicts a 15% drop in university enrollment in the U.S. over the next few years, Burkett said.

He elaborated:

[The main contributing factors to this drop in enrollment] will include financial hardship leading to a reduction in the ability to pay expenses, increases in domestic deferment, a reduction in international student populations (in US and elsewhere) due to travel restrictions, and limited experiences of entering classes for the next few years. And these are only the general factors— as the economic impact of the pandemic and the varied response both internationally and nationwide will change how the alternatives to college begin to market themselves, how inequality in not only American but global K-16 education persists along socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines as it continues to widen and define further— not to mention how the survivability of the individual institution impacts the steps leaders take to ensure the measures of their own success. Closures, expansions, contract terminations, and acquisitions cover only a few of the shrewd decisions already being made by university leaders pushed to think differently about the days ahead.

Burkett recommended, in addition to smart and flexible management, control over operational budgets and endowment capital. The challenge, according to him, is for universities to embrace modern technologies while finding a way to “preserve value and tradition.”

International troubles

The inequity between poor and rich is primed to grow at the global level, as well.

“No doubt, the different lockdowns and shutdowns to stop the spread of the pandemic were necessary,” Simon Ateba, the DC-based publisher of Today News Africa, explained to me, “but they also crippled the economic activity in many African countries, from South Africa in the South to Nigeria in the West, and elsewhere, but the long term effect would be the loans African nations would not be able to repay on time.”

“Long after the coronavirus is gone, and the current leadership has been replaced, either through elections or otherwise, African nations would keep paying the billions of dollars of loans secured during the pandemic, especially loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Bank,” Ateba said.

This is a long trend for African nations, who groan under the weight of un-repayable debt from the IMF, the WBG, the ADB. The great shibboleth of development has long eluded “developing” nations, even as education in these countries, as we have explored, continues to lag behind.

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