COVID-19: A closer look at how ministries of education have responded

Shutterstock / Ekaterina Dvoryaninova

For many ministries of education (MoEs), the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a period of exceptional uncertainty. Few – if any – countries found themselves sufficiently prepared to address the challenges posed by the crisis. While it is too early to determine the full impact on education systems of COVID-19, understanding how MoEs have initially responded to the pandemic is important for improving planning for crises and protecting both learners and communities, as well as past education gains. 

This article examines how MoEs were engaged in the initial response to the COVID-19 crisis through planning, as well as coordinating and managing the implementation of emergency responses. It draws on contributions made by participants in the thematic discussions on contingency planning, that took place during IIEP-UNESCO’s six-week learning forum, ‘Planning and Managing Education in the Context of COVID-19’.

Building on a culture of risk reduction

While preparedness was cited as challenge in many contexts, some participants reported that a pre-existing culture of risk reduction and management within their MoE helped their countries facilitate COVID-19 education responses. For example, Liberia’s experience from the 2014–2015 Ebola crisis provided important evidence on remote learning coverage in local contexts, which was used to ensure education continuity. Burkina Faso drew lessons from their experience of addressing the periodic school closures that resulted from insecurity across the country since 2016. Similarly, in Afghanistan, decades of response to risks of conflict and disaster led to the development of a well-established education in emergencies working group that is active at both national and decentralized levels. 

‘Lessons learned and experiences from the past have been used to put together a responsive education in emergencies group at the national and sub-national level that deals with education continuity of children.’ – Participant, Afghanistan

Developing emergency response plans

Another common thread in the contributions from MoEs was the development of education response plans for COVID-19. While specific strategies varied considerably, results from a poll conducted as part of the discussions found that plans mainly focused on (i) educational continuity and (ii) school reopening. Many participants said their countries also sought to invest in preparedness in the event of future crises. In several cases, MoEs reported facing similar challenges when developing their plans, including on when and how to reopen schools, what and how to prioritize, and how to safeguard past education gains. Ensuring equity during school closures was a primary challenge, as mentioned by participants from Gabon, India, Mali, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka.

‘Equity is the paramount concern for Rwanda in order to avoid closures disproportionately hurting vulnerable and disadvantaged students who rely on schools for a range of social services.
 – Participant, Rwanda

While the process of how emergency plans were developed differed across contexts, it was reported that they were developed with a mixture of internal and external expertise. Inter-ministerial collaboration was often cited as an important factor to plan development, with ministries of health, but also of finance (as reported in Iraq). While processes were led by MoEs, these often referred to the importance of technical and financial support provided by humanitarian and development partners and non-governmental organizations.

 ‘The MoE has coordinated efforts with the Ministry of Finance and the Prime Minister to develop proactive plans to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and provide necessary funds for educational continuity.’
 – Participant, Iraq

Figure 1: Poll findings: Contingency planning

Source: IIEP-UNESCO. (Two polls carried out as part of the contingency planning discussions.) 
Note: Total participants: Poll 1: 96 participants from 49 countries, providing data on focus and learning modalities; Poll 2: 32 participants from 24 countries, providing data on budget and reopening.


Financing appeared to be a key area of concern. While results from a second poll conducted as part of the discussions suggested that most education response plans included a budget, there was uncertainty about how successful countries would be in mobilizing or reallocating necessary financial resources to fund the plans through various sources (see Figure 1), while coping with potential budget cuts due to economic downturn.

Coordinating and managing COVID-19 responses

Many participants referred to the importance of mobilizing functional, existing bodies, such as Local Education Groups, to support government responses. Several highlighted the importance, due to the specific nature of the disease outbreak, of coordination with other line ministries, particularly ministries of health, and other government bodies, such as those dedicated to social services and disaster management. 

‘The response is done in collaboration with the other ministries of the social sectors and supported by education partners and civil society within the already existing and functional partnership frameworks, namely the Local Education Partners Group.’ – Participant, Togo

Many reported that, to facilitate coordination and capitalize on existing expertise, their countries established education-specific COVID-19 emergency response teams or taskforces. These teams often included a combination of representatives at national and decentralized levels, as well as representatives from partner organizations, teachers’ unions, and the private sector. 

The Task Force is composed of Commissioners and education development partners. Material was developed by the National Curriculum Development Centre and the Uganda National Examinations Board, printed by the Ministry and delivered to districts.’ Participant, Uganda


Responding to COVID-19 has been a learning experience for countries around the world. Despite the considerable challenges, the pandemic is being recognized as an opportunity to rethink education systems and to further strengthen their resilience. While key lessons may become clear only after the pandemic has ended, some takeaway points in terms of contributing to effective responses and building stronger, more resilient education systems can be identified:

  • Engage government and education actors beyond the central ministries of education: Work alongside ministries of finance and health, as well as sub-national education offices, schools, and communities, to the extent possible. When education systems involve sub-national decision-makers and education actors, they are better placed to respond to the realities at school level. 
  • Draw on existing capacities and coordination structures: Engage, when possible, with existing, functional coordination structures, to allow for rapid mobilization and response of stakeholders with a broad range of capacities, and avoid duplication of efforts.
  • Prioritize the institutionalization of risk management in education systems: Invest in mainstreaming crisis-sensitive education strategies in national and sub-national planning tools and practices. Learn from experience with past emergencies, and identify lessons learned from the current crisis to develop the capacities of education leaders, learners, communities, and systems to withstand future emergencies.