“Building Forward Better:” Reclaiming COVID-19 disruptions as an opportunity
Madagascar’s government had a swift reaction when the first cases of COVID-19 were detected on the island in March 2020.
Schools were immediately closed nationwide. And overnight, our 41 Educators were out of work.
This wasn’t the first time we have been in this unfortunate situation. Plague outbreaks, teacher strikes, and natural disasters regularly disrupt the school schedule in Madagascar. It is a salient risk for our school-based program.
However, these COVID-related closures were different. This was the first time that the shocks and consequences from school closings were being recognized and felt worldwide.
As sad as we were to say goodbye to our Educators, we were relieved that our long-term donors reached out and enhanced their flexibility. We were able to pay out Educators’ full contracts, putting them in a better position to prepare themselves and their families for the oncoming economic downturn.
Funders’ newfound flexibility also allowed us to pivot quickly; for instance, we secured telecommunication tools to start working from home – protecting the health of our staff.
Safe at home and with our programs suspended, we unexpectedly had a moment to breathe. To reflect. To learn. To build.
Like many small, mission-driven non-profits, our core team is constantly juggling dozens of tasks to make our organization survive and thrive in the otherwise normal, pandemic-free world.
We now had an unexpected opportunity to turn inwards and finally get to those items buried in our never-ending to-do lists.
One of our top priorities was further strengthening our internal systems foundational for future growth.
For example, we revamped our financial and administrative procedures to support multi-regional operations.
We also updated our Educator job description to reflect a new pay grade and benefits system using feedback gathered internally during the past year.
Furthermore, we outlined a comprehensive monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning plan for testing and documenting our biggest leap yet: delivering Projet Jeune Leader programs in 45 schools throughout 3 regions.
Our technical team also gained an opportunity to focus on learning.
Our young, passionate team, who are otherwise always on the ground supporting our Educators, used time in quarantine to develop professional skills (e.g. using Microsoft Office, writing professional emails,), learn new technical skills (e.g. giving effective presentations and conducting in-depth interviews), and dig in-depth into the most recent literature on comprehensive sexuality education.
We reviewed and carefully considered the feedback we had received during the past school year.
Although our partner schools had been in session for just 5 months before the pandemic hit, we received 1,980 written comments from teachers, parents, and students through our constituent magazines. Their two biggest suggestions: 1) offer after school programming to more students; and 2) teach PJL courses to all grades at the school.
Responding to this, we overhauled our Educators’ extracurricular program (‘périscolaire’) protocols to offer activities that are available to more students and allow for differing interests, as well as developed a new 27-module, scripted curriculum for grade 7 (‘5eme’) students in our partner schools.
Finally, we set the stage for our expansion.
Our Regional Technical Managers conducted 45 courtesy visits to potential new partner schools across our three program regions. They implemented a new checklist to assess school readiness for our program and synthesized their findings to select 25 new partner schools across three regions for the upcoming school year.
We also updated our school partnership agreement and created an orientation binder for partner school directors to shift power and improve accountability to these invaluable local stakeholders.
Besides this, we revised our grade 6 (‘6eme’) and grade 8 (‘4eme’) curricula to mitigate materials costs and logistics at scale based on what we had learned the past year.
Finally, we updated safeguarding policies and procedures for our Educators which now include more practical guidelines for protecting our middle school student constituents across our ever-increasing number of partner schools.
After six-plus months of quarantine, we checked more off our lists than we could have previously imagined. Our goal during the tumultuous time was not to wait and “build back better” – but to already begin building forward.
By using COVID-19 disruptions as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and build, we were ready with a more effective, more accountable, and more transformational program when schools reopened. And when they did in early November, we began reaching over 20,000 adolescents with this integrated, holistic, and youth-led program, with a lot more capacity to grow further from here.
Thank you to our donors and partners for your enhanced flexibility and support throughout the last year.