Global Education Expert Discusses Pandemic Realities, Silver Linings

Global education expert Fernando Reimers challenged the Groton community to consider the effects—both negative and positive—that the pandemic has had on learning. Should we be asking how much students learned, he asked, or why humanity tried so hard to support students during a global pandemic?

“This pandemic can bring about an educational renaissance,” said Dr. Reimers, director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University, summing up a lecture that was part history lesson, part COVID-19 data, and many parts inspiration about the world’s collective ability to spark innovation through collaboration.

The lecture, titled “Global Education During Challenging Times,” kicked off Groton School’s Global Education Day, February 17. Throughout the presentation, students participated in on-the-spot online polls, an interactive feature that highlighted the relevance of the material. The first interactive question solicited students’ reactions when COVID-19 was first declared a global pandemic; answers ranged from “didn’t think it would last long” to “really scared” to “excited to have a sudden vacation.”

Dr. Reimers’ reaction, like that of many educational leaders, was to wonder how the pandemic would affect students around the world. While the impact was indeed dire, he demonstrated that it also sparked a promising educational revolution. In spring of 2020, he noted, about 1 billion of the world’s 1.2 billion students attended schools that were totally or partially closed. One in seven people were either infected with COVID-19 or close to someone who was—making learning difficult. Some students dropped out of school, and some governments, strapped by pandemic-related public health costs, balanced budgets by slashing school funding. The number-one factor that mediated the impact on education, said Dr. Reimers, was social class.

Countries that prepared and practiced, such as Singapore, fared well and provided broad access to online education. The speaker shared other success stories, stressing the impact that individuals had, sometimes while their governments faltered. In Brazil, he said, state and municipal leaders, in the absence of federal action, joined business leaders to create a multimedia platform that effectively distributed educational programming. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Reimers and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development created “A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020,” the first of several publications analyzing the pandemic’s effect on education. 

The pandemic did have silver linings, he asserted, outlining “Seven Dividends of the Pandemic:” 1) a greater emphasis on socio-emotional development and educating the whole child; 2) appreciation of science and technology; 3) better use of technology; 4) enhanced communication between school and home; 5) greater societal appreciation of education; 6) greater collaboration among teachers and others; and 7) greater reliance on partnerships. Groton students offered the silver linings they experienced as well, including time to spend with family, optional standardized tests, and more sleep.

While there was learning loss, Dr. Reimers said, there also has been “unprecedented innovation that will have lasting value.” 

After the morning lecture, students had two additional opportunities to meet with Dr. Reimers, who held sessions in the Sackett Forum on “What Does It Mean to Be a Global Citizen?” and “Global Travel: Working Across Communities and Human Rights.” 

For Global Education Day, one group of Groton students embarked on another global journey by joining a sustainability discussion, hosted by the Global Education Benchmark Group, and engaging via Zoom with students from Canada, India, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United States. Participants brought varying perspectives to a discussion about the United Nation’s twelfth Sustainable Development Goal: to "ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns." Topics ranged from overuse of plastic to food waste to the fashion industry’s negative environmental impact. 

On Global Education Day at Groton, even lunch was an international event, as the community feasted on foods from around the world. Afterward, leaders of Groton’s Global Educational Opportunities (GEOs), which have been on pause during the pandemic, spoke with students about various school-sponsored trips.