The physical classroom has been replaced by a Zoom room where my kids wave to their friends and talk to their teachers through a small box. The emotional, developmental, and learning costs associated with this transition from the classroom to the Zoom room are visible every day.
India is not alone. School closures have affected 1.6 billion children worldwide. However, in low- and middle-income countries, schools are closed for much longer than in most higher-income countries. In parts of South Asia, Latin America and Africa, schools have been completely closed for more than 80 weeks. Uganda, which reopened schools in January 2022, topped the list with 82 weeks of partial or total closures.
Countries with the lowest digital access also had the longest shutdown periods. A 2021 Asian Development Bank (ADB) study estimated that only 41% of low- and middle-income households in Asia have Internet access.
In West and Central Africa, broadcast media have replaced the classroom due to limited Internet access. However, only 26% of households in rural areas had a TV set.
In India, distance learning is done primarily through mobile phones, but a 2021 survey by Pratham, the NGO Annual State of Education Report (ASER), shows that only 68% of households with primary school age children in rural India own smartphones. . And of those, only a quarter of the students had access to those phones; so they didn’t go to school for almost two years.
Despite digital access, the quality of education was poor. For India, the ASER survey offers the only comparative measure of pre-pandemic and pre-pandemic learning levels in selected rural areas. In the state of Chhattisgarh, which reopened schools in August 2021, a study found that Standards 3 and 5 students’ ability to read the core Standard 2 textbook declined by more than 15 percentage points. In rural Karnataka, 19.2% of Standard 3 students in 2018 studied at the same level (i.e. they could read the Standard 2 textbook). In 2020, this figure fell to 9.8%. There are similar losses in basic arithmetic. Just 17.3% of students were able to do simple subtraction in 2020 compared to 26.3% in 2018.
India is not unique. In April 2021, students in South Asia, where schools were closed the longest, lost about 0.55 tuition-adjusted years of schooling, ADB estimates. Compare this to the Asia-Pacific region, where schools have largely remained open and children have lost only 0.08 learning-adjusted years.
The cost of learning losses to lifelong performance is significant. A recent study examined the impact on Pakistani students of a 14-week loss of school education after the 2005 earthquake and calculated that the lack of education for these children could result in a 15% loss of lifetime earnings. Think now what nearly two years of school closures and limited distance learning will do. The loss to the future productivity and lifetime earnings of affected students could amount to $1.25 trillion for developing Asia, equivalent to 5.4% of the region’s GDP in 2020, according to ADB.
Now, two years after the start of the pandemic, with the third wave receding, even recalcitrant countries like India are taking steps to reopen schools. But schools are not open for business as usual. This rediscovery provides an opportunity to make up for the lost training of these two years and repair long-term damage. This will require significant financial resources to provide physical classes, teaching materials and, most importantly, teachers.
Much more will be needed to overcome the learning gap. Classrooms in many parts of the world have long been victims of a pedagogy that focuses on curriculum completion and curriculum standards rather than what children know. Two years of school closures have made the curriculum in its current form irrelevant. To make up for lost learning, the school system must return to basics (basic literacy and numeracy) and allow children to reconnect and catch up. This means investing in measuring learning loss and providing remedial education to students before they move on to the next grade and race back to the curriculum.
All this will require financial resources. But spending needs are becoming critical as countries seek to cut back on pandemic-driven spending stimulus and restore fiscal discipline. For example, India, which announced its annual budget for 2022-2023 on February 1, intends to cut government spending by 2.5% of GDP from 2020-2021 in the new fiscal year. Education budgets, cut at the peak of the pandemic, fell victim to budget deficit targets and were not increased. Given the long-term economic costs of school closures, this reluctance to spend money on education is shortsighted. There is an urgent need to invest in education. Otherwise, the effects of Covid-19 will be felt for a long time to come.