Back to school with distance learning

Authors: Sobhi Tawil and Maya Prince, UNESCO
Education systems have been disrupted to an unprecedented degree during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools closed around the world in early 2020, countries moved quickly to offer distance learning through various delivery modalities. Teachers, learners, and parents have had to adjust to new realities to ensure learning continuity. This article describes the current status of country efforts to reopen schools in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is based on UNESCO’s ongoing global tracking of school closures and reopenings and on the results of a joint survey conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, across 149 countries. 

The status of schools ranges from fully to partially opened, to months-long closures.

As of mid-November 2020, the vast majority of countries (183) have taken steps to reopen schools, while applying various health and safety measures. While two-thirds of these countries (123) have reopened their schools with full in-person instruction, the other third (60 countries) are reopening with various restrictions – a status UNESCO classifies as ‘’partially open’’. These restrictions include the prioritization of the return to face-to-face learning for learners from certain grades, reopening in regions with low infection rates, and/or using hybrid approaches that combine a mix of in-person and distance learning. However, in 23 counties, including some high-population countries, schools have remained closed for over six consecutive months, affecting 197 million learners (UNESCO, 2020), contributing to learning loss and raising concerns about increased disengagement and dropout.
Status of schools by proportion of impacted students (15 November 2020)
Fully open (45%): 123 countries, 681 million students
Partially open, by grade (24%): 22 countries, 372 million students
Closed due to COVID-19 (13%): 23 countries, 197 million students
Partially open, by region (12%): 22 countries, 187 million sutdents
Partially open, hybrid (4%): 16 countries, 65 million students
Academic break (1%): 4 countries, 12 million students
Source: Prepared by the authors, based on UNESCO’s global tracking of school closures and reopenings (November, 2020), and complementary research.

Most countries are choosing to reopen schools situated in areas with low infection rates, signaling that the health crisis is still very much dictating decision-making in the education sector.

Partial reopening of schools can fall into three broad categories, albeit with overlap across the different groups
  • Referring decisions to local governments: 22 countries | 197 million students. 
Most commonly, governments have been referring the decisions to reopen schools to local governments, districts, or individual schools. In some cases, they have even left the decision to families. 
  • Prioritizing return of specific grades: 22 countries | 372 million students
Other governments are prioritizing the reopening of schools for specific grades, often those in which pupils have to sit for national examinations. In these cases, plans to reopen for other grades are often unclear, and these learners continue (or start) their academic year through distance learning, without knowing when they will return to face-to-face learning. 
  • Nationwide hybrid approach: 16 countries | 65 million students
Finally, some governments have also been applying nationwide hybrid approaches, which combine a mix of distance and in-person learning. The main purpose of this approach is to reduce class density and it is often combined with the use of shifts. 
Overall, the 634 million students, across 60 countries, whose schools have started to partially reopen still face uncertainties about their full return to classrooms. Timelines, even when communicated, tend to be provisional and contingent on the evolution of the severity of the pandemic.

Countries will continue to use distance learning after school reopening, and have various strategies to monitor its effectiveness.

Survey results indicate that at least three-quarters of surveyed countries  intend to keep using distance learning, alongside in-person classes – both as a modality for educational continuity and as an additional resource to supplement pedagogical content for learners. 
Despite the global shift to distance learning in response to the pandemic, very little is known about its effectiveness as a substitute for traditional schooling. While 4 out of 5 in middle- and high-income countries consider distance learning as an effective substitute for schooling, and count distance learning days as official school days, only 1 in 5 low income countries officially recognize distance learning days as school days, a striking difference across income groups (UNESCO et al., 2020). 
Strategies used to monitor distance learning during school closures also vary widely across countries. While 60 per cent of countries reported that teachers were required to keep track of student learning, the practical means to such monitoring differed – within countries, across sub-regions, between schools, and even among individual teachers. Some teachers relied on learning management systems developed for this purpose and others relied on manual tracking methods, whether through the use of a computer spreadsheets or with pen and paper approaches. 
Responses to the joint survey reveal two main strategies countries are using to evaluate the effectiveness of distance learning and ensure continuity of learning. At least three-quarters of countries reported they either had assessed or were planning to assess students when schools reopened after prolonged closures. Such assessments can take various forms – from classroom assessments through school-level examinations to national assessments. Other countries are relying on surveys completed by teachers, parents, and students to better understand patterns of engagement with distance learning tools and platforms. These surveys often ask questions about the effectiveness of the content delivery processes as well as on attitudes towards distance learning and initial experiences. 


Significant resources have gone into distance learning in recent months, stemming largely (and, in many instances, exclusively) from the necessities of school closures in response to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, these efforts have encouraged policy-makers and the public alike to rethink education systems beyond the current crisis. While hybrid approaches to schooling are emerging, decisions on when and how they are applied appear to be closely linked with (1) the overall sanitary conditions, and (2) the successes and limitations of distance learning. Although nationwide applications of hybrid approaches remain rare, this approach helps to ensure education continuity during crises. In this way, the hybrid approach can enhance the resilience of education systems by allowing students and teachers to adapt to changing environments in the context of COVID-19 and beyond. 


Sobhi Tawil is the Director of the Future of Learning and Innovation Team at UNESCO, and Maya Prince is a Project Officer on the same team. 

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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