Non-State Schools (NSSs) Respond to COVID 19: A Focus on Learning

Paula A. Cordeiro

In two earlier blogs, we shared the results of a study conducted with Non-State School (NNS) leaders in ten low and middle-income nations. It resulted in a report: Education Interrupted: Edify’s Roadmap to Continuing Learning During the 2020 Pandemic written by a team including Andy Johnson, Maxie Gluckman and myself. That study summarized three areas of concern identified by school leaders. The first blog reported the health and safety concerns school leaders faced as schools reopen. The second blog described the financial sustainability concerns identified by school leaders. Here we discuss what happened regarding student learning when schools were closed in spring 2020. And as I write this, most schools are slowly beginning to reopen.

Ghanaian Education Specialist Florentine Ansah-Asare explains ideas for health and safety protocols.

First, let’s put these schools into context and then we’ll discuss the findings from the study.

NSSs in Low and Middle-Income Nations

There are over 1.5 million schools in the Global South that receive little or no government support and their numbers are growing exponentially. In many countries, anywhere from 20% to 85% of all schools are non-state schools (CapPlus (2017); Economist, 2015; Cordeiro, Gluckman & Johnson, Under review). These schools have various names depending on their location or who is writing about them. They are sometimes referred to as: Low Fee Private (or Independent) Schools, Low-Cost Private Schools, Budget Schools (India), Low-Fee Faith Based (or Faith-Inspired) Schools, and Non-State Schools. In this blog, we will use the latter term since it is frequently used in the literature.

These NSSs can be for-profit or no-for-profit, but let’s think of them as social enterprises. There are many definitions of the term social enterprise and for the sake of simplicity think of them not being charities or for-profit companies—they are a hybrid. NSSs are social enterprises that may be registered as a nonprofit organization or as a business. They serve a social purpose and generate income through tuition, fees, etc. in order to operate.

NSSs During the Pandemic

Of the 308 NSSs that we surveyed in ten nations (Guatemala, DR, Peru, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and India), 75% reported they were providing some type of educational support to students during school closures. In approximately 90% of the schools that remained operating, some teachers were still teaching during the pandemic; however, only 29% of those teachers were being fully paid. The remainder were partially paid or payment was being deferred. In schools that were operating with no teachers teaching, work fell to the school principal.

So, what were teachers and principals doing to offer students learning opportunities? The most common options across all nations involved teaching through messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Telephone. However, in some regions such as some African nations and India, it was more common for schools to offer instruction and assignments on paper. In Burkina Faso and Liberia, few schools reported using messaging apps while in Ghana a high percentage used messaging apps to support learning. This can be explained by a few facts. Ghana is what the World Bank calls a lower-middle income nation while Liberia and Burkina are low-income nations; thus, the numbers of teachers, parents and students with smart phones is particularly low in these nations. However, Ghanaians regularly use messaging apps and Ghana has greater internet connectivity than these other two West African nations.


In the five African and three of Latin American nations we studied, approximately 25% of the schools were following up on student engagement after students watched or listened to educational TV or radio programming offered by the government. This was particularly found in Uganda (83%), Rwanda (55%), Peru (47%) and Burkina Faso (24%). No schools in India, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, or Ethiopia reported following up on TV or radio.  Most likely this is because these governments, or their NGO partners did not provide those services, at least not at the time of data collection in May 2020.

Quality and Preparedness of Education Support 

Our study found that many of the school leaders interviewed anticipated schools would be reopening shortly so they were responding slowly, or not at all, to student learning needs. For those schools that were working remotely with children and families, a large number of school leaders lamented that students were not getting a quality education. One school leader in Rwanda is typical of the comments made by others, “My greatest concern is how to keep children engaged in their studies…” For many this concern comes from the unequal access students had to education during school closures. While government programs including TV and radio educational programming were offered in some countries, school leaders commented that they did not reach all communities and did not serve everyone’s needs. The lack of access to technology was a key issue with one commenting, “most of our students don’t have phones or computers so it is impossible to send notes online.” And another simply stated that students “who are not in WhatsApp groups are not reached.” 

What’s Next?

The pandemic has made clear that schools need to be better prepared to provide education during disruptions that prevent students from being physically present in the classroom. The majority of the schools in this study were unprepared for learning to continue while schools were close, especially for an extended period of time. Numerous school leaders mentioned that teachers need to be prepared to teach digitally; however, few of these NSSs have WiFi and computers or other devices for teachers to do so. 

5th graders in Ghana using e-readers

Blended learning offers schools the opportunity to rely more heavily on the use of digital and online learning tools when students are not able to learn face to face. The schools in this study that had already implemented a blended learning strategy prior to the onset (e.g., some schools in Ghana and Guatemala) of the pandemic were better equipped to offer quality education during the disruption caused by COVID-19. Interest in blended learning has surged in 2020 as schools have recognized that improving blended learning needs to be a focus in the present, rather than a distant goal. Now that a larger number of school leaders have become familiar with using digital technology themselves during most of 2020, it is an opportune time for making progress on the important role digital technology must play in teacher and student learning. 

For schools in nations that have little access to technology or government and business support, coupled with teachers who have had minimal training as educators, this is a particular challenge. Planning for remote learning prior to the advent of any school closures will need to include a combination of paper and follow up after any radio and TV programming. All schools need to be prepared for future educational disruptions whether they have adequate access to technology or not.

Thanks for reading!

Meet Paula A. Cordeiro