COVID-19 has caused an education crisis
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— learning losses could cost this generation of students close to $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, World Bank-UNESCO-UNICEF report says  

THIS generation of students now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14 per cent of today’s global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures, according to a new report published today by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF.

According to a release, the new projection reveals that the impact is more severe than previously thought, and far exceeds the $10 trillion estimates released in 2020.

In addition, ‘The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery’ report shows that, in low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in Learning Poverty – already 53 per cent before the pandemic – could potentially reach 70 per cent, given the long school closures and the ineffectiveness of remote learning to ensure full learning continuity during school closures.

“The COVID-19 crisis brought education systems across the world to a halt,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.

“Now, 21 months later, schools remain closed for millions of children, and others may never return to school. The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable. And the potential increase of learning poverty might have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families, and the world’s economies.”

Simulations estimating that school closures resulted in significant learning losses are now being corroborated by real data, the release noted. For example, regional evidence from Brazil, Pakistan, rural India, South Africa, and Mexico, among others, show substantial losses in mathematics and reading.

Analysis shows that, in some countries, on average, learning losses were roughly proportional to the length of the closures. However, there was great heterogeneity across countries and by subject, students’ socioeconomic status, gender, and grade level. For example, results from two states in Mexico showed significant learning losses in reading and in mathematics for students aged 10-15. The estimated learning losses were greater in mathematics than reading, and affected younger learners, students from low-income backgrounds, as well as girls disproportionately.

Barring a few exceptions, the general trends from emerging evidence around the world align with the findings from Mexico, suggesting that the crisis has exacerbated inequities in education.

Notably, children from low-income households, children with disabilities, and girls were less likely to access remote learning than their peers. This was often due to lack of accessible technologies and the availability of electricity, connectivity, and devices, as well as discrimination and gender norms; younger students had less access to remote learning and were more affected by learning loss than older students, especially among pre-school age children in pivotal learning and development stages; the detrimental impact on learning has disproportionately affected the most marginalised or vulnerable.

Learning losses were greater for students of lower socioeconomic status in countries like Ghana, Mexico, and Pakistan; and initial evidence points to larger losses among girls, as they are quickly losing the protection that schools and learning offer to their well-being and life chances.

“The COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across the world, disrupting education for 1.6 billion students at its peak, and exacerbated the gender divide. In some countries, we’re seeing greater learning losses among girls and an increase in their risk of facing child labour, gender-based violence, early marriage, and pregnancy. To stem the scars on this generation, we must reopen schools and keep them open, target outreach to return learners to school, and accelerate learning recovery,” said UNICEF Director of Education, Robert Jenkins.

The report highlights that, to date, less than three per cent of governments’ stimulus packages have been allocated to education. Much more funding will be needed for immediate learning recovery. The report also noted that while nearly every country in the world offered remote learning opportunities for students, the quality and reach of such initiatives differed – in most cases, they offered, at best, a rather partial substitute for in-person instruction. More than 200 million learners live in low- and lower middle-income countries that were unprepared to deploy remote learning during emergency school closures.

Reopening schools must remain a top and urgent priority globally to stem and reverse learning losses. Countries should put in place Learning Recovery Programmes with the objective of assuring that students of this generation attain at least the same competencies of the previous generation. Programmes must cover three key lines of action to recover learning: 1) consolidating the curriculum; 2) extending instructional time; and 3) improving the efficiency of learning.

In terms of improving the efficiency of learning, techniques like targeted instruction can help learning recovery, which means that teachers align instruction to the learning level of students, rather than an assumed starting point or curricular expectation. Targeted instruction will require addressing the learning data crisis by assessing students’ learning levels. It also necessitates additional support to teachers so that they are well-equipped to teach to the level of where children are, which is crucial to prevent losses from accumulating once children are back in school.

“We are committed to supporting governments more generally with their COVID response through the Mission Recovery plan launched earlier this year,” emphasised Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education.

“With government leadership and support from the international community, there is a great deal that can be done to make systems more equitable, efficient, and resilient, capitalising on lessons learned throughout the pandemic and on increasing investments. But to do that, we must make children and youth a real priority amidst all the other demands of the pandemic response.  Their future – and our collective future – depends on it.”

To build more resilient education systems for the long-term, countries, the bank said should consider: investing in the enabling environment to unlock the potential of digital learning opportunities for all students; reinforcing the role of parents, families, and communities in children’s learning; ensuring teachers have support and access to high-quality professional development opportunities; and increasing the share of education in the national budget allocation of stimulus packages.

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