Schools have closed again due to the exponential rise in COVID-19 infections. While there is no doubt that children’s safety is of utmost concern during the third wave, is the education crisis increasing Learning Poverty among kids? In rural Karnataka, for example, the share of grade three students in government schools able to perform simple subtraction fell from 24% in 2018 to only 16% in 2020 due to school closures, says a joint report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank.
The global learning crisis has grown by even more than previously feared: this generation of students now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value as a result of school closures, far more than the $10 trillion estimated in 2020, says the report. Progress made for children and youth in other domains has stagnated or reversed.
Schools ordinarily provide critical services that extend beyond learning and offer safe spaces for protection. During school closures, children’s health and safety was jeopardized, with domestic violence and child labour increasing. More than 370 million children globally missed out on school meals during school closures, losing what is for some children the only reliable source of food and daily nutrition. The mental health crisis among young people has reached unprecedented levels. Advances in gender equality are threatened, with school closures placing an estimated 10 million more girls at risk of early marriage in the next decade and at increased risk of dropping out of school.
In addition to providing education, schools promote children’s overall wellbeing. In many villages and urban slums, schools provide children with meals and supplements, deliver health services and vaccinations, allow children to develop their socioemotional skills and provide psychosocial support, all creating additional incentives for parents to send their children to school. Evidence from COVID-19 and past health crises has shown that school closures reduce children’s access to critical services and safe spaces and have detrimental effects on child protection outcomes.
What can be done?
The World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF recommend that each country adopt a learning recovery programme of evidence-based strategies to accelerate learning. As children return to in-person schooling after the worst education disruption in a century, providing a concrete program to accelerate learning is necessary to prevent this
generation of children from being worse off than previous ones.
Our country will need to customize a learning recovery programme appropriate to the Indian context. No single intervention will achieve this, which is why a more systemic approach is necessary. Each programme should incorporate a suitable policy mix of evidence-based strategies, with considerations for capacity and budget constraints and other relevant factors. While results on learning recovery post-pandemic are still nascent and the effectiveness of post-pandemic learning acceleration strategies limited, evidence from previous crises and successful interventions to boost learning for students with low learning levels offer a way forward.
A lesson of the pandemic is that systems must build resiliency and plan for learning continuity between the school and home environments. The pandemic has underlined that learning is a continuous process, and that children should receive the right stimulation both at school and at home. The role of parents, caregivers, and the community is critical, and public policy should strengthen their capacity to support the learning process. Improving learning conditions at home (including access to devices, connectivity, and availability of books) should be a public policy priority.
Closing the digital divide — which was much needed even before the pandemic — is now an urgent development task. Closing the divide will facilitate a transition to hybrid learning models in which learning at school is complemented by learning at home.
The pandemic has also shown that education is about social interactions, and that the role of the teacher is fundamental element to the learning process. The pandemic exposed the need for systemic risk analysis for education systems to identify and prepare for future shocks. COVID-19 school closures exposed just how vulnerable education is to shocks and the importance of contingency planning to support learning continuity. As natural disasters and other shocks resulting from climate change become more common, education systems must become more resilient and be ready to adapt.
Undertaking systems diagnostics, such as a hazard and conflict analysis, can enable education systems to identify future risks to delivering education and the mechanisms available to strengthen resilience. Other system-level analyses, like UNICEF’s Remote Learning Readiness Index, can offer critical insights into a country’s readiness to deliver remote learning and can support them to identify weaknesses and build partnerships to strengthen their remote learning readiness.
This crisis has also exposed how education systems often fail to protect their most vulnerable students and emphasized the need to strengthen the focus on inclusion and equity. Drawing from lessons learned, education sector planning and systemic risk analysis should aim to better prepare systems for future disruptions.