COVID-19 school closures have brought significant disruption in education. Emerging evidence suggests that the pandemic is resulting in learning losses and increases in inequality. To reduce and reverse the long-term negative effects, countries need to implement learning recovery programs, protect educational budgets, and prepare for future shocks.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the Spring of 2020, more than 190 countries had closed all schools and universities, affecting more than 90 percent of the world’s learners – over 1.6 billion children and young people. While many governments are presently reopening educational institutions, millions of students worldwide lost several months of in-person instruction and many continue to lose out on learning opportunities. Ample research shows that at the individual level, education leads to better outcomes later in life, including better health, employability, and earnings. For countries, investing in education leads to higher economic and social development.
Disruption in education is of particular concern because experience shows that the impacts of school closures on children and young people resulting from pandemics and other crises are multiple and long-lasting. These impacts, which range from lower educational attainment, higher morbidity and disability, include foregone earnings, which in turn lead to productivity losses that can affect entire economies. The 1918 influenza, for example, generated impacts that lasted into the 1980s. Cohorts in utero during the pandemic displayed reduced educational attainment, increased rates of physical disability, lower income, lower socioeconomic status, and higher transfer payments compared with other birth cohorts. In addition, men suffered a loss in wages equivalent to between 5 and 9 percent due to the pandemic.
A simulation of COVID-19 impact finds that learning could be as low as 0.3 and as high as 0.9 years of schooling adjusted for quality, bringing down the effective years of basic schooling that students achieve during their lifetime from 7.9 years to between 7.0 and 7.6 years worldwide. We estimated the costs of COVID-19 school closures on lifetime earnings for today’s enrolled students, and losses in GDP for low-, middle- and high-income countries, for primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as for the world as a whole. The costs of the COVID-19 education closures are substantial. The estimated present value lifetime loss in earnings at the individual level is US$2,862 in low-income countries, US$6,882 in middle-income countries, and US$21,372 in high-income countries. At the global level, this loss is US$11,230. School closures are likely to lead to a reduction in global economic growth equivalent to an annual rate of 0.8 percent. Estimated losses in national income are greater in low- and middle- relative to high-income countries.
To mitigate learning loss and future earnings declines, countries have implemented distance education programs. In many countries, education systems went online. For those with adequate access to the Internet and devices, access was very good. In some countries, due to the lack of Internet penetration or access to devices, other means were used. Television broadcasts, radio transmissions, traditional distance learning methods (i.e., post office) and even face-to-face in small groups if conditions were safe. For some, however, access has been more difficult.
One of the limitations of these mitigation measures is the lack of interaction between teacher and student. With broadcasts, this is not possible. Evidence is emerging to show that school closures have resulted in actual learning loss. Research analyzing these outcomes is ongoing, but early results from Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have shown both learning losses and increases in inequality. Alarmingly, these losses are found to be much higher among students from less-educated homes.
To mitigate these challenges while also building a more resilient system that can withstand future crises, we make three core recommendations:
1. Implement learning recovery programs
Most immediately, it is important to act now to ensure that students who have fallen behind receive the support that they need to catch up to expected learning standards. The first step must be to carry out just-in-time assessments to identify these students and their support needs. Research has shown that 12-week programs of tutoring can result in students making the kind of progress that would be expected from three to five months of normal schooling. In Italy, middle school students who received three hours of online tutoring a week via a computer, tablet, or smartphone, saw 4.7 percent boost in performance.
2. Protect the education budget and target education spending
Given the significant financial strain that economies have been under during the pandemic, some countries may face government budget cuts and this may jeopardize the gains that have been made in recent years in terms of access to education and improved learning outcomes. To help the most vulnerable students, governments should prioritize be directing much of the funding and resources to support schools delivering remote instruction, particularly if those schools are serving high-poverty and high-minority populations. To encourage students to remain in school, incentives such as scholarships may need to be implemented.
3. Prepare for future shocks
To be better prepared for future crises, countries need to invest in their capacity to provide blended models of schooling. Schools should be better prepared to switch easily between face-to-face and remote learning as needed. This will also create opportunities for more individualized approaches to teaching and learning. With this in mind, it will be necessary to develop flexible curricula that can be taught in person or online. Additionally, teachers need to be better equipped to manage a wide range of devices in the event of future school closures.
Several countries are revising their curriculum to emphasize the fundamentals and making it clear what children need to know. That is, they focus on learning standards and improving learning outcomes. This is very important given the low learning standards worldwide before the pandemic and the learning loss that has occurred since the school closures.