The Challenge of Learning: How COVID Affected Education Around the World

This time last year, no one could have imagined what 2020 would bring to us. With COVID-19 pandemic taking over the world this Winter, keeping up with New Year’s resolutions stopped being the only thing people had to worry about.

The virus gradually creeped into our daily lives until it overtook them completely. At first, it was all about small things - how many gym days will I miss? When can I get my hair done next?

However, as time passed, we realized that the virus was not going anywhere. We had to introduce significant changes to the most fundamental parts of society. Universities and schools were one of the first ones to feel the shift.

As history has shown us, immediately closing down schools is one of the crucial steps in fighting the spread of the virus. The most prominent example is the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

So how did colleges adapt, and what are the next steps? We have created the ultimate summary of the impact of coronavirus on education.

The State of the Education System as of August 2020

When governments finally realized the severity of the crisis, learning establishments began moving their teaching online. As a result of school closures that followed, more than 54 million students were sent home in the US only.

Currently, 134 countries have completely shut down universities, colleges, and schools, and 38 have implemented local closures. Overall, this is affecting more than 1.5 billion learners across the globe.

COVID also opened a new perspective on taking exams. While school finals were mostly canceled, many colleges moved to digital assessments. British and Australian universities, among others, reported it to be a huge success. According to them, online testing reduces student anxiety and the cost of examinations.

How Do Current Trends Compare to the Start of the Pandemic?

What It Was Like Before

We can all recall the chaos that came with the start of lockdown in early Spring. Even though no one really knew what to do, it was clear that keeping schools open was not an option.

By the 2nd of April, 194 countries shut down all educational institutions. In the Americas and Europe, most of them managed to set up online communication between students and staff to convey coronavirus updates. In Africa, in contrast, more than a third of higher education facilities had no means of contacting their pupils.

By May, 67% of all universities reported that they have fully migrated to online teaching and learning. That includes 85% for Europe, 72% for America, 60% for Asia, and 29% for the schools in Africa.

What It Is Like Now

We are now almost six months into the pandemic, and the system has taken up multiple adaptations. As of mid July, the number of countries that have completely suspended in-person teaching decreased to 110.

Better alternatives are now in place - for instance, most UK universities are now doing ‘blended learning’. This approach includes some classes being taught on campus with necessary precautions, while others take place online. However, selected few schools, such as Cambridge, have suspended all face-to-face teaching for the 2020-21 academic year.

As countries lift lockdown, primary schools start to reopen with reduced class sizes and social distancing measures. Norwegians were one of the first ones to do that way back in April when the rest of the world was still under strict quarantine. Teachers received infection control training, and guidelines were put in place to maintain safe learning conditions. To this day, this has not triggered a new surge of the disease.

Singaporean schools started reopening on the 2nd of June, starting with pre-schools to ensure adequate care for young children while their parents return to work. Higher learning institutes accept students on-site for practical lessons, while lectures and seminars are still online.

In Japan, schools were temporarily closed in February. By the end of May, the epidemiological situation improved, and they were allowed to reopen in early June. Children attend lessons on alternate days to keep half of each classroom empty. Parents are supposed to check their kids’ temperature every morning and report to the school. Lunch has to be eaten in silence.

In the Netherlands, some places went as far as putting up plastic shields on students’ desks. Teachers are equipped with flexible screens to protect their faces.

How American Universities Are Handling the Crisis

As in any other country, American universities were taken aback by the disaster. By the second week of March, 300 universities across 44 states and DC shut their doors to students as the country went into lockdown. The University of Washington was one of the first campuses to report confirmed cases.

Colleges found it challenging to completely transform schooling with respect to the global health situation, even if they’d had the facilities for that before. However, many say that it opens a new gate to expand the use of technology and gain helpful partnerships with other institutes.

American University in Washington DC moved classes and exams online for the rest of the academic year when lockdown started. As for plans for the next term, they have decided on a combination of face-to-face and digital learning. The October mid-term break will be dedicated to in-person symposiums and workshops. Returning and freshman students were promised on-campus accommodation.

California State Universities allowed those who could not go home to self-isolate on campus, but Harvard students were urgently sent home with just five days’ notice, causing significant outrage. Now they are faced with even bigger threat in the face of the fall term as a new visa rule gets released.

International students who will only have online classes this Autumn will not be allowed to stay in the States. Their options are to leave the country or switch to a different school that has adopted in-class teaching as well as digital lectures.

Should We Expect a New Wave of Coronavirus?

The global number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 is falling as quarantine proves effective. Social distancing rules have been eased in most countries, requiring only basic prevention steps now such as wearing masks in public places and avoiding gatherings.

As a consequence, many of us have let our guard down and flooded beaches and parks. Authorities urge people to be cautious but keep lifting mandates. What does this mean in terms of future predictions for the pandemic?

It is important to remember that in colder seasons our immunity weakens. It is harder to fight off infections, which means that we will be more vulnerable to coronavirus.

If the current trend continues and no restrictions are put in place in Autumn, the number of deaths from COVID in America will surpass 210,000 by November. It means approximately a thousand people dying each day. The number of infections would skyrocket to 240,000 daily.

However, if a simple regulation were imposed, such as always wearing a face mask outside, the projection is much more promising. In this case, the daily death rate would be as low as 200 cases per day. The number of infections would go down to about 33,000 a day, making an optimistic scenario for 2021.

The Adaptations That We Now Have to Get Used To

“Anyone who tells you what will happen in October (when our classes start) is spinning fantasies—we have no idea what the summer melt will be this year.”

Kevin Karplus, Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Several models can be proposed for the future of learning at this point. Different universities will adopt strategies that are realistic for their capabilities: anything from courses going fully online to campuses opening and closing in a cycle. But what’s clear is that we now have to create a sustainable plan of action rather than counting on short-term solutions.

For most students, school is likely to be a digital experience from now on. We are already used to Zoom and Google Classroom, and some colleges had used Moodle as their main platform for online resources even before the pandemic. Institutions will take advantage of massive open online courses like EdX. Alternative assessment systems such as Google Forms could become widespread.

Colleges and schools will have to ensure that their teachers are well-equipped and qualified to deliver learning material. Many of them have never designed an online course before and need to be provided with thorough guidance. Indiana University has already taken steps to support their staff by creating a Keep Teaching website, which has now been adopted by numerous other institutions across the world.

Since everyone has to greatly rely on technology, UNESCO has published an extensive guide of resources available to everyone for remote learning. Advanced electronic devices are not available to everyone, so the list includes links to software that enables studying using even the simplest of mobile phones.

Student life experiences will also be transferred online as much as possible. Virtual activities such as notes crowd-sourcing, online study groups, and live-streamed events will become a part of a university routine.

The Tendencies of Online Education

“This summer I met with my flagship class by Zoom twice and Panopto all the other times. My students pioneered remote tutoring.”

Bruce Murray, Associate Professor, Coordinator of Reading Education at Auburn University

The e-learning trend has been on the rise since the beginning of the millennia: it has shot up by an astounding 900% since 2001. This is reflected in how much young people depend on laptops rather than hand-written notes - more than half of American students routinely use technology during lectures. Furthermore, with the COVID pandemic, the number of enrollments on Coursera hit 18 million in just a few months. This is 543% higher than at the same point last year.

Now that the global perspective on education has shifted, the eyes of the world are focused on online facilities more than ever. The e-learning market is estimated to increase in value up to $325 billion by 2025, compared to 2014 statistics which calculated it to be only $164 billion.

It is not surprising: digital study is beneficial as it provides students with unlimited learning opportunities and full independence. The contrast is especially evident when compared with traditional education, where you have to rely on professors and physical books to do your homework.

81% of students agree that online materials have helped improve their grades. They are freely accessible 24/7 which allows going back to lecture content at any time and making neater and more detailed notes.

What Will Happen to University Admissions This Year

“I'm sure that admissions are down but I don't know by how much.”

Dr. Mark Manley, Professor and Undergraduate Coordinator at Kent State University

Universities will see a significant decrease in the number of domestic applications this year as a lot of families can not afford tuition fees. International students will not be in surplus either due to travel and visa restrictions. It will strongly affect countries that get the majority of their income from overseas scholars, such as the US and the UK.

If you are in your senior year of high school, you are practically suspended in mid-air. In addition to financial concerns, it is not clear how exams will be managed, and if your college is accepting new applications. Are you even going to get the qualifications that you need to get in?

Our enrollment is a bit behind where it was a year ago but considering the predictions of a decline of as much as 20 percent nationally, we are feeling pretty good about our potential enrollment.

Jodi Walker, Director of Communications at the University of Idaho

The truth is, each university is handling admissions for the next academic year differently. Your best bet is to go to your institution’s website and read their advice for new applicants. Here are a few examples.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

On April the third, MIT posted an update for prospective students on their website. The school reassured applicants that it would remain consistent with the rule to not penalize students for factors outside of their control. It includes any changes to grading policies and exam cancelations.


Stanford University

Stanford was very flexible in its admissions terms. For students who are to start their degree in the fall of 2021, including standardized test scores in the application will be optional. Students will not be penalized for not submitting the scores. It also applies to candidates for the class of 2024.

Overall, the university adopted a ‘holistic admission’ practice, focusing on each individual application in the context of the COVID outbreak.


Princeton University

Following the trend with the other 7 Ivy League schools, Princeton University confirmed that they will not require SATs or ACTs as part of the admissions process this year. Instead, they will assess each application individually, taking circumstances and additional factors into account.

The school also suspended the usual early-admissions process, placing all applicants on the same level with the regular deadline on the 1st of January of 2021.

However, as we know, student-athletes recruited to Ivy League universities still have to complete standardized tests. In response to that, Princeton assured those students that have no way of accessing the testing that the board will be flexible in review of their application.


University of California

Most US universities have agreed that SATs and ACTs shouldn’t be necessary for this year’s applications. However, some schools decided to take it one step further by completely phasing out standardized testing out of their admissions process starting from fall of 2021. On May 22nd, the decision was made by a unanimous vote by the entire Board of Regents.

Instead, the school will develop a new test that is said to assess more accurately the qualities that UC expects their prospective students to have. The plan is to completely eliminate SATs and ACTs by 2025 for residents of California. The strategy for non-Californian students is yet to be figured out.


University of Oxford

The University of Oxford proceeded with its application process as usual, holding interviews online. Applicants received their offers in January, way before the UK went into lockdown.

The university will accept the calculated average grades released on the 13th of August as long as they meet the course requirements.


University of Toronto

The University of Toronto accepts any form of alternative grading and adjusted assessment methods determined by the applicant’s school. They recommend taking advantage of supplementary learning materials to prepare for the start of university life. They currently work on the way to help international students start their education in fall if travel restrictions are still in place.

Changes to Exam Conditions

“Evaluations in courses will be all over the place, with perhaps some shift away from tests that are too easy to cheat on.”

Kevin Karplus, Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Due to school closures and dramatic quarantine measures, students all over the world had to stay home with minimal to no instructions from their teachers. A UNESCO global analysis confirmed that at least 58 countries rescheduled exams, 23 introduced online testing, 11 canceled them entirely, and only 22 carried them out anyway.

Naturally, this disadvantaged those who did not have access to technology and online learning facilities. Authorities, alongside examination boards, had to make a difficult decision to alter exam conditions to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

China set up online mock university entrance tests and over 5 million students took part in it. The Gaokao is one of the most important events in every student's life, and after a significant delay, it finally went ahead this year. Test takers had their temperature checked and wore masks throughout the entire examination. Their health status was closely monitored two weeks prior to the date.

In Germany, the Abitur finals proceeded as normal following national school closures. After a long debate between the country’s 16 states, they decided against a calculated average grade.

The Netherlands canceled all nationwide final year exams. Students will receive their qualifications based on the grades they get from local school exams, which are encouraged to be held online where possible.

In the UK, A Level and GCSE exams were canceled. Instead, pupils will receive a calculated average of their current grades that all higher education institutes accept.

The initial plan for online SATs in the US was suspended. The college board argued that many students would not have access to a reliable internet connection, and the technology required to sit a three-hour examination at home. Universities and colleges were urged to not penalize applicants that do not submit their scores.

Nevertheless, online AP tests did take place between May 11th and May 22nd. For security purposes, each attendee sat the exam at the same time regardless of their time zone. Students were encouraged to use their books, notes and even the internet, although the Board made it clear that test-takers wouldn’t find it very helpful.

Several steps were taken to prevent cheating, including plagiarism detection software, monitoring social media for answer sharing, and cross-examination by teachers familiar with the students’ work.

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It’s Not the End

The world is uniting under the pressure of an unprecedented crisis. Although the education system is facing more uncertainty than ever, universities and schools are doing their best to support their students. Online schooling has become the single most important asset to ensure continuity of learning.

Before COVID, e-learning was mainly a tool to provide access to education for everyone and increase productivity and efficiency. Today, it has become a way to mitigate the pandemic's extent while ensuring relative stability for students. It is now acting as the main drive for worldwide digitalization.

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