The OECD calls for all education responses to COVID-19 to be designed to avoid deepening educational and social inequalities (Reimers and Schleicher 2020).
What seems very clear is that in spite of global challenge of Covid-19, the adult learning sector, while facing particularly difficult financial conditions, continues to demonstrate its resilience by going above and beyond to provide flexible, learner-centred solutions to keep adults in education and reach the most vulnerable groups.
Social justice is central to COVID-19 recovery. Research in adult education, as the collection of papers included in this issue, can serve as a platform for groups of people who are not generally heard or listened to – often falling into the cracks of neoliberalism.
As Raymond Williams (1983) has argued, during times of challenge, people turn to learning in order to understand what is going on, to adapt to it, and more importantly, to shape change.
This issue highlights the value of supportive networks, and of solidarity and community.
It also shows how sustaining individual lives and communities is as important a function of adult education as transforming them.
When the informal, non-formal, and formal structures of adult education engage with external social forces they can play a constructive and dynamic role. That is even more important at this challenging time in our lives.
As noted by many scholars writing and researching in the field of adult education (see, for example, Boeren et al. 2020, Waller et al. 2020), COVID-19 has rendered social inequalities – related, but not limited, to disability, employment status, immigration status, income, language, race, and social-class – more visible and piercing.
These inequalities have also deeply affected access and participation to lifelong learning education, which in turn has had consequences for wellbeing and mental health (Watts 2020).
Furthermore, as schools, colleges and universities closed their campuses, the ‘vulnerable’ remained left without a physical safe haven, while disadvantaged families had no or limited access to equipment or connectivity to take full advantage of online and digital learning.
Adults have suddenly faced unemployment, having to find ways to support themselves and their families, putting earning before learning and (re)training by working longer hours and taking extra jobs to protect household incomes (Pember and Corney 2020).
This portrait of adult education in these uncertain times does appear rather gloomy. The lack of technological resources in formal and non-formal adult education settings (Patrinos and Shmis 2020) and at home (Beaunoyer et al. 2020) means that many adult learners encountered additional barriers in the completion of their educational projects.
For adult education practitioners too, the pandemic has meant a reduced or different kind of offer of support for learners, additional stress and anxiety as they quickly find they have to digitally upskill themselves, and for some, the loss of their employment (Lasby 2020).
As noted by Tett (2020), in these difficult times, we need, more than ever, to look for ‘“resources of hope” (Williams 1989) that enable us to engage in struggle and action together’.