Effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on teachers’ livelihoods

Shutterstock / Timothy Kuiper

When school closures were announced, as part of larger efforts to slow the propagation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, international organizations were quick to advocate for protecting teachers’ wages. The International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 issued a call to support teachers, while Education International released guiding principles. Both called for protecting salaries for teachers of all categories. At that time it was not yet known to what extent teachers’ wages would be affected.

IIEP’s recent online forum provided new insights into this question. Indeed, the bulk of participants, mostly from developing countries, expressed concerns about the short-term impact on salaries and contracts, with a particular solicitude for contract and private school teachers, whose vulnerability they felt would be exacerbated by the crisis. Such concerns were justified, as findings of a joint survey conducted by UNESCO/UNICEF/World Bank and another survey by Education International have shown. Discussions brought to light how the lockdown heightened inequities within the workforce, affecting teachers’ livelihoods, as well as how various governments responded to such concerns. 


Non-government-employed teachers the most affected

According to the online forum participants, while the majority of public-sector teachers, although technically unemployed during school closures, continued receiving wages, other teachers have not had such protection. In most countries, teachers in the private sector were particularly hard hit, as were all those not on the government payroll and whose salaries depend on parents’ contributions. This includes community teachers (e.g. Malawi, Uganda) at all levels and early childhood education and care (ECEC) workers, whether from the private sector (e.g. Burkina Faso) or employed by communities. This was especially the case in those schools that rely on tuition paid in multiple instalments over the school year, and for teachers paid by the hour.

We don’t have any news from our employers. March salaries are unpaid. We have nothing left to support our families. This is a serious matter. We are in danger of starving to death and not from COVID-19 – Private teachers’ unions, Togo



About half of these respondents declared that the crisis affected teachers salaries. The majority of respondents added that private and contract teachers were the most affected.


The opportunity to continue teaching revealed further inequities between teachers

Some private teachers were given the opportunity to continue teaching when their schools began distance learning. Some were also able to offer private tuition at a distance. But these instances were rare and depended on connectivity, parental demand, and the age of their pupils. Indeed, distance learning was not an option for ECEC workers, for obvious reasons. Moreover taking into consideration the fact that the vast majority of ECEC teachers globally are female (nearly 94%), and that many ECEC centres are private or community-based, school closures may have accentuated gender inequalities within the workforce.


The slowdown of activities in the informal sector affected teachers

Teachers who need to supplement their revenues with activities in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable to lockdown measures. Prior to the crisis, many, especially private teachers, had already been dependent on second jobs to make ends meet. Now the slowdown of activity in the informal sector is impacting their capacity to generate additional sources of income.

Teachers employed in the informal economy, such as community teachers, are directly impacted. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that the first month of the crisis resulted in a 60 per cent decline in earnings of informal workers globally. By region, the expected decline is largest in Africa and Latin America, at 81 per cent.  

The informal sector has always been an opportunity for the majority of teachers, especially those in the private sector, to make extra money. ... With the slowdown in this sector, it is undeniable that most teachers and their families are affected.’ – Participant, Niger


Ensuring protection of the non-government-employed education workforce

Many governments embraced a proactive role to enhance equity among teachers during the crisis. Efforts were made to ensure learning continuity in refugee camps in several countries (e.g. Chad, Mauritania). For private school teachers, governments took measures to ensure wage continuity by requiring schools to pay teachers fully or in part (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Comoros). In other countries, the state organized its response with school leaders and teachers’ unions to build a comprehensive response plan and allocate grants for private school teachers’ salaries (Haiti, Madagascar, and Tunisia).

While some participants advocated for governments to intervene with a stimulus package, questions are emerging with regard to government capacities to maintain salaries for all teachers in a context of severe economic crisis. Forecasts warn that education funding is likely to diminish (World Bank, GEM Report, IIEP-UNESCO).

The current crisis should therefore prompt a call for action: it is an opportunity to draw lessons and improve education systems’ resilience, including by tackling inequalities in the education workforce.


Participants highlighted future challenges and possible ways forward

  • The economic crisis is likely to impede efforts to revalorize the work of teachers and increase salaries. It is also likely to prolong the threat to wage continuity and overall job security, particularly for contract, community-paid, and private teachers, who are particularly prevalent in the ECEC sub-sector.
  • States can benefit from building partnerships with private school representatives and unions on the legal framework of teacher protection, and reflect on how to address similar situations in the future.
  • Teacher training in distance learning, and building a resource bank that does not require high connectivity, can help teachers remain active in times of crisis, so that students continue to learn.