Amid Pandemic, America's Schools Have Much to Learn from Refugee Education | Opinion

Getting children safely back to school during a pandemic is a new challenge facing American policymakers, administrators, teachers, and parents this fall—but the challenge of educating during a crisis has long plagued contexts of war and displacement.

The scope of this global crisis is unprecedented, but the education dimension is not new. Before the pandemic, 250 million school-aged children and youth worldwide were out of school. These young people were overwhelmingly concentrated in fragile, conflict-affected contexts. Indeed, refugee children were five times more likely to be out of school than their peers. The creative solutions that have been deployed to reach these children without access to physical schools, a reliable Internet connection, fully trained teachers, and more, are ones that decision makers in the U.S. should take lessons from.

Daily headlines feature the stress parents are under, and the complex decisions schools are struggling with as the academic year begins. As education practitioners with the International Rescue Committee working in conflict contexts, we understand this professionally; as mothers of school-aged children in the United States, we are experiencing this within our own families for the first time. While educators are doing their best to keep children healthy and learning, they don't have the necessary information to guide decision making on how to help children catch-up and learn after extended disruption and during an ongoing crisis. From working in the most challenging environments on earth, we know what it takes to deliver quality opportunities no matter the circumstances.

Here are four ways the U.S. education system can take a page from humanitarian contexts:

  1. Focus on social-emotional learning (SEL): Ensuring children gain foundational academic skills like literacy and numeracy will require investment in social-emotional learning (SEL) approaches alongside traditional academic instruction. Research shows that SEL improves academic outcomes. Furthermore, social-emotional skills that help children name their emotions, resolve conflicts peacefully, set goals and persevere not only help them learn and succeed in school, but can help them manage their behavior, and develop and maintain positive relationships with others. Social-emotional learning can help children immediately and in the long term during a crisis.
  2. Support caregivers. Parents are children's first teachers; while children are learning from home, many parents across the countries will find themselves serving as teachers in new ways without the know-how and support for doing this. Schools should focus on providing concrete activities, guidance, messages, and tips for parents to promote children's social-emotional well-being and health, as well as parents' own well-being and health, alongside academic learning. In refugee contexts where young children may not have access to preschools or daycares, the IRC has had success sending overburdened caregivers of young refugee children ideas for simple, play-based activities that they could do at home focused on developing children's language and social-emotional skills through WhatsApp or text messages.
  3. Think outside the box. While the digital divide is exacerbated in low-income countries, we know it exists in the US, too. Schools should provide a range of no, low and high-tech options to reach children no matter their access to the Internet. Messages and play-based learning activities using everyday objects can be sent via WhatsApp written or recorded messages. Audio programs modeled after podcasts can be highly effective; when schools were closed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, students in Sierra Leone were able to access educational content through radio.
  4. Consider complements. Schools are faced with a daunting task ahead, and we know that children are returning to and accessing school in new ways that will require them to receive targeted support to not fall behind. We need to help all children to catch-up. Small group tutoring by trained facilitators should not be available only to those with the resources to afford it privately. While American parents have caught attention in the news for seeking "learning pods," it should be schools, not parents, helping initiate and implement this targeted support. Tutoring is effective in both stable and refugee contexts. For example, IRC's soon-to-be-published research providing tutoring to Syrian refugee students in Lebanese public schools showed refugee students gained 2.9-6.2 times the literacy skills of students without tutoring.

It will be a challenging year ahead for students and their parents globally, but with a commitment to looking towards and learning from contexts and workers who have decades of experience striving to help children go to—and succeed in—school despite unimaginable barriers, we can help U.S. children thrive even during this unprecedented time.

Sarah Smith is the senior director of education and Jamie Weiss-Yagoda is the senior policy advisor of education, both for the International Rescue Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.