Cities and education during COVID-19: What are the takeaways?

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Authors: Candy Lugaz and Chloé Chimier, IIEP-UNESCO

Around the world, cities are playing a central role in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the field of education (UNSG, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). In partnership with ministries of education and local actors, cities have taken cross-sectoral initiatives to support learning continuity and ensure safe school reopening. In the framework of the research project on ‘Cities & Education 2030’, IIEP experts have interviewed officials from three cities around the world to learn from their experience in coping with the crisis. An expert from the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) also shared with us insights from the Global Network of Learning Cities. This article describes the key takeaways from these officials for effective crisis management at city level.

Anticipate and prepare for different scenarios 

Cities have a key role in interpreting and implementing national policy decisions at the local level. However, ‘there has been some evidence of frustration when cities can’t rely on the national government to have clear and timely advice, whereas on the ground they have to act very quickly’, says UIL’s Alex Howells. In an ever-evolving context and often without clear guidance, cities have had to anticipate and prepare for different scenarios, and analyse their impact on key stakeholders: children, parents, teachers, district education office, city support services, etc. ‘Where we anticipated scenarios, we were much more serene’, explains the Director of Education in Orvault, France. When information is not available, capitalizing on experience, questioning and activating networks to obtain answers from the Ministry of Education or health services are necessary steps. 

Strengthen cross-sectoral collaboration

Cities with a long-standing culture of partnership are better equipped to cope with this unprecedented context. In France, a solid collaboration between the city administration and representatives of the Ministry of Education at the local level appeared to be the number one ingredient for successful crisis management in responding to the pandemic. 
The crisis reveals the pivotal role of cities in connecting education with other sectors and actors. ‘We already had a team dedicated to our coordination from a social and health perspective; this allowed us to apply these channels to other sectors’, says the Councillor for education of Viladecans, Spain. ‘Now we serve as a link between the two areas’. In Huejotzingo, Mexico, strong links built with local private companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have facilitated the provision of schools with sanitary equipment including masks. ‘The key to success’, the city’s Mayor explains, is this: ‘as authorities we have to involve other sectors. We have to be committed to the issue of education so that other sectors join in’.  

Communicate with the school community

One of cities’ main assets in crisis management is their proximity to citizens. The Director of Education in Orvault reports that, there, ‘Citizens do not expect instructions from the State; they expect them from the Mayor’. Two-way communication channels between the city and local education communities are key, therefore. While the city needs to make sure information reaches all audiences, it also has to be open to receiving and acting on feedback from school directors, teachers, families, school canteen staff, and so on. Ongoing communication efforts are important to build trust, which is essential in such a context. Viladecans’ Councillor for Education explains that ‘the role of administrations (…) is to generate spaces of trust and peace of mind, especially in schools’.

Target the most disadvantaged learners

It is at the city level that one finds the deep knowledge of local context which is needed to develop targeted and relevant actions for the most vulnerable learners. Cities can mobilize local resources to provide disadvantaged families with material and socio-emotional support. Viladecans’ Councillor for Education reports that their first-hand knowledge “has allowed us to very quickly address the needs of schools and families by providing daily educational content, help in connectivity and digital devices, and, above all, giving emotional support’.

Build bridges between formal, non-formal, and informal education

The pandemic has highlighted how much formal, non-formal, and informal education can complement each other. Cities play a major role in non-formal and informal education, which has been key during the pandemic. Getting cities more involved in formal educational planning (rather than just with school buildings and equipment) could ensure better complementarity between different educational opportunities. The Mayor of Huejotzingo explains: ‘Cities cannot limit themselves to the physical infrastructure. Their participation is necessary both in the educational planning of the formal system and the development of programmes focused on citizen empowerment through non-formal and informal mechanisms.’ 
 

Connect with other cities 

 
Participating in exchange networks allows cities to reduce their isolation and share experiences. ‘Cities want to reach out to local governments that are closer to them than national governments. In some countries, we are observing the emergence of ‘learning regions’’, says Alex Howells. In Mexico, for instance, cities that are part of the Global Network of Learning Cities have created a subnational group of Learning Cities. In France, cities’ directors of education have held weekly virtual meetings, as part of the cities education directors’ network ANDEV to share information and best practices.
 
COVID-19 has underlined the agile and creative contributions which cities can make to meeting SDG 4. When planning for crisis response and recovery, national governments have everything to gain in developing coordination and support frameworks with cities. 
 
Candy Lugaz and Chloé Chimier are programme staff at IIEP-UNESCO, working on the research project ‘Cities & Education 2030’. 
 
This project is made possible through a partnership with the Education Above All Foundation’s Protecting Education in Insecurity and Conflict programme (EAA–PEIC).
 
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