The Invisible Cost of School Closures

Written by: Kamika Patel

The tremendous impact of the global COVID-19 school closures on young people worldwide is detrimental to children’s academic wellbeing, social development, and future career prospects. The extended school closures since March 2020 left more than 1.6 billion children out of school during the beginning months of the pandemic. Globally, around 1 in 7 children have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. In countries that had extensive school closures, specifically within South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, the number of school days lost is close to 200. These school closures have prompted a learning loss predicted to cost the equivalent of $10 trillion in these children’s future earnings. More than 888 million children worldwide continue to face educational and learning disruptions because of full and partial school closures. The most vulnerable children, including those unable to access remote learning, may never return to the classroom. The Mission: Recovery of Education 2021 seeks to make sure schools reopen and stay open to prevent further disruptions in education for millions of children.

There are devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing due to school closures. School is where the majority of schoolchildren worldwide participate in critical elements of their childhood and development in areas related to literacy, nutrition, and social-emotional learning. When discussing his government’s efforts to restore learning, Chile´s Minister of Education Raul Figueroa said, “we have had an earthquake in education.” These closures are damaging to human capital.

School closures were previously viewed as a preventative mechanism against the spread of COVID-19. However, now there is evidence indicating that children transmit the virus less efficiently than adults. Schools are not at any greater risk than any other professional or recreational environment such as office spaces or restaurants. 

Remote learning has not provided equal compensation for face-to-face education. Based on a study in Sao Paulo conducted at the beginning and end of 2020, students learned 27.5 percent of what they would have learned in in-person classes. This is just one assessment of mounting evidence from other countries indicating stunted learning due to school closures. 

School closures also heightened inequality of opportunity. Those who lacked an internet connection, technological resources, a space to work, access to books, and adults to provide guidance were left without an adequate learning experience. And for millions of children, an online virtual classroom was merely unattainable. UNESCO revealed data showing that about 830 million students do not have access to a computer. The crisis is even more deep and divisive in low-income countries across regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.  

A particular example comes from the Philippines, where images of children scaling roofs and mountains to receive an internet signal were shown in the media. This came after the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte reversed a plan to trial in-person classes in low-risk areas as the country battled over 480,000 coronavirus infections, which is the second-highest number in Southeast Asia. In a country of 108 million, where less than a fifth of the population has access to the internet and mobile devices, the shift to online classes, self-learning modules, and radio programmes has proven extremely difficult. According to the education ministry, there has already been a surge in students dropping out of school.

As the COVID-19 crisis amplifies the lack of progress in education for the most vulnerable children in low-income countries, there is a concern for how school closures, specifically, may heighten the disparities in girls’ education. It is projected that 11 million girls will never return to their schooling. However, recent evidence from Senegal and Ghana suggests good news when it comes to girls’ re-enrollment following extensive school closures. Both countries measured low overall dropout rates (below 2 percent) when schools reopened in November 2020 and January 2021, respectively. While this collection of data suggests that decades of efforts to normalize girls’ education are proving worthwhile, there is still a concerning risk for early pregnancy, abuse, and child marriages after young girls drop out. 

Prompted by the long-term impacts of disrupted education, international institutions, including the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF, developed the Mission: Recovery of Education 2021. The mission calls for all countries to reopen schools for complete or partial in-person instruction by the end of 2021, and have them stay open.

The international institutions named above, “The Partners,” are prioritizing three tasks: planning the reopening of schools, offering returning students effective remedial learning and comprehensive services for their overall wellbeing, and ensuring that teachers are prepared and supported to meet their learning needs. In collaboration with state governments, The Partners plan to engage with governments and decision-makers to prioritize education financing and mobilize additional domestic resources. Additionally, The Partners will collect data and analytics through surveys to provide accessible information on school re-openings, learning loss, drop-outs, and the transition from school to work.

The Partners will observe guidelines to reopen schools safely, including using several prevention strategies to minimize the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, facemasks, testing, frequent handwashing, and improved ventilation. The Partners will also advocate for the prioritization of teachers’ vaccination, which 57 percent of countries have already done. The recovery mission suggests that school calendars may be adjusted to make up for the lost time and that the curriculum must be adapted to prioritize foundational learning. These efforts should provide flexibility according to the local needs of returning students.

After 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in 17 countries in regions including Southeast Asia and Subsaharan Africa remain fully closed due to a lack of vaccinations. Schools in 39 countries are partially closed in regions including South America and countries like the U.S., India, and Australia. The Partners are creating a sense of urgency to reopen schools as they describe the protection and learning recovery for this generation of children as a “moral imperative.” 

Decisions about school openings and policy action for learning recovery should be based upon the available evidence. Yet, there is an alarming trend of governments closing down schools as the first course of action rather than a last resort. In some countries, this decision is made nationwide, and in others, it is decided by individual communities. Nonetheless, children are experiencing devastating impacts on their learning and overall well-being as a result of school closures. 

The 2021 Recovery of Education mission aims to help schools provide the needed support to their students and overcome tremendous challenges in reopening safely. Battling insecurity due to COVID-19, climate breakdown, poverty, and civil unrest, the Mission aims to provide full, comprehensive support to children to avoid running the risk of what Rob Jenkins, UNICEF’s global director of education, calls a “lost generation of learners.”