The threat of COVID-19 on our global healthcare system is unparalleled; it spread rapidly into many countries and was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. It has also brought unprecedented educational disruption to the vast majority of youth around the world. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), approximately 1.6 billion or 90% of the world’s student population are or have been at one point during the pandemic out of the classrooms as a result of a nationwide closure of schools and higher education institutions, an effort by the public health to contain the spread of the virus. This disruption is indeed very concerning as children and youth are drivers of change and the next generation of caregivers, scientists and doctors.
Despite this global education crisis, learning can and does continue; governments and education stakeholders in developed countries have mitigated the challenges and setbacks associated with school closures by implementing remote learning using various delivery channels (digital tools, TV/radio-based teaching and take-home packages). The impact that the virus has on developing countries, however, has exacerbated the already existing disparities within the education system as they lack the infrastructure to support bringing a classroom home. In light of this, Global TIES for Children, an international research center based at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and NYU NY, was created to assess human development and has partnered with both non-governmental organizations as well as governments to create programs and policies to improve the lives of children and youth in low-income and conflict-affected countries. The Global Education Coalition was also launched by UNESCO to support governments in delivering education remotely through the use of several technologies, particularly for more vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, and in ensuring continuity of education for all.
Many organizations have conducted surveys in order to better understand the effects of the pandemic on higher education at a global or regional level, and to investigate the measures undertaken by higher education institutions to minimize this educational disruption. These include the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the USA, the European Association for International Education (EAIE), the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in Europe and the Global Survey launched by the International Association of Universities (IAU). Interestingly, the IAU Global Survey showed that 60% of higher education institutions have increased virtual mobility and/or collaborative online learning. Moreover, two-thirds of their respondents reported that replacing face-to-face with online teaching is very challenging; the quality and feasibility of distance teaching and learning depend on accessibility to technical tools and the internet, the level of preparedness of educators to enable online teaching, and on the field of study.
As a science educator myself, I can confirm that migrating the in-person teaching experience into an online environment is not easy and indeed requires adaptation from both educators and students; it is not sufficient to merely learn and apply new tools and systems for distance teaching and learning, but also requires a shift in mindset. Despite these challenges, investing in remote learning is key as it would not only alleviate the immediate educational disruption caused by COVID-19, but would also help in establishing approaches to develop more open and flexible education systems for the future. With this in mind, many universities, such as NYUAD have managed to translate their academic strength into developing many resources that directly contribute to the health and safety of the community, and help educate students that have been forced out of the classroom.
In addition to impacting education, this pandemic has had immediate effects on the global research community. Many research projects were initially put on hold and reevaluated in light of the COVID-19 response. This was a result of staff being unable to access the laboratories, and universities needing to reinvent how to manage their campus operations. Moreover, many health and safety protocols have been implemented across all research labs to facilitate the continuation of faculty and student research, such as maintaining social distancing as well as adhering to masks and sanitation practices. There has also been an additional need for general health monitoring, screening and contact tracing, which includes, but is not limited to daily health screening, contract tracing apps, and campus access approval.
Once these measures were applied, a considerable amount of attention has been on combating and studying COVID-19. From social and economic to physiological and scientific disciplines, research laboratories and corporate houses have placed themselves on the front line of the battle against coronavirus by initiating projects aimed at tackling this pandemic and better understanding the impact it has on the world. For instance, there has been a need at NYUAD for trained diagnostic lab technicians to study the virus, which has led to recruiting students that have the expertise and willingness to place themselves in a real-world working environment. Additionally, several organizations have been created that are also collaborating in global efforts to help alleviate the COVID-19 outbreak. By way of example, there has been an increase in research focusing on what policies governments should implement in order to ensure that children and youth are educated in a way that would equip them with the tools to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives during and post-COVID-19.
NYU Abu Dhabi researcher adhering to novel health and safety protocols, such as maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask while conducting research.
This health crisis, brought on by the pandemic, has quickly evolved into an economic, cultural and social crisis and the consequences will persist long after social isolation has ended. Nevertheless, this pandemic is a global challenge that calls for a global response; collaboration at an international level is key to develop joint solutions for the current and future challenges.