Sooner or later, COVID-19 arrived at every corner of the world, generating an unprecedented disruption in life as we knew it. After almost a year since the start of this health crisis, while some days feel like “business as usual”, there are still important constraints for different activities, such as education.
At the moment, there are 30 country-wide school closures in place due to COVID-19, which affect 32.7% of the enrolled students from pre-primary to tertiary education around the world. While these figures are more favorable than those at the end of April, when 84.5% of the learners were affected by 166 country-wide closures, education is still limited and reopening doesn’t necessarily mean that we will take up where we left off before the outbreak.
As the situation quickly changes, it is complicated to accurately predict the effects of the pandemic. However, previous findings and the experiences of past shocks are useful to shed some light into what the likely effects on human capital formation of this crisis could be.
School closures can have several adverse effects, with the most noticeable being those related to learning losses, increasing drop-out rates and missed social interaction that is essential for personal development.
Although learning losses can vary by different factors, such as age and region, there are different channels through which COVID-19 could lead to such losses: less time spent learning due to the closure of schools, psychological adverse effects of confinement, lack of external motivation as many evaluations have been canceled and reduced interaction with peers and teachers.
While different options for remote learning were available for most high-income countries, particularly online only, low-and middle-income regions struggled to rely on such method. As it can be seen in Figure 2, while more than 80% of the population of high-income countries is connected to the internet, only around 60% of the population is connected in upper-middle countries, with the number dramatically decreasing to 16% in low-income countries.
Considering that access to some educational resources is restricted to some groups and that online learning platforms can provide an opportunity to socialize with classmates, this particular disparity between regions suggest that COVID-19 could at least generate some learning losses for the more disadvantaged groups in society.
On the other hand, it is important to notice that schools also contribute to other areas of well-being for many students around the world. For instance, according to the World Food Programme, at least 310 million children in low- and middle- income countries received a meal at their school in 2019. It is important to notice that this mechanism is also relevant in richer countries, such as the United States and the UK, and that there is evidence of a relationship between nutrition and academic performance.
Besides nutrition, schools also provide a safe space for girls. When schools close, girls might be required to do more household work, which reduces the time they can dedicate to study.
Moreover, as noted by the World Bank, “the education system is witnessing an extraordinary twin shock”, as the pandemic has not only forced school closures, but it has also been an unprecedented economic disruption worldwide. Therefore, COVID-19 also has the potential to negatively impact education through other channels.
For instance, the restrictions on economic activity might have created financial difficulties for families, and with it an increased pressure for students to pursue employment opportunities and drop out of school. In some regions, income-earning responsibilities had resulted in earlier marriages and consequent school abandonment.
The World Bank projects that around 7 million students from primary to secondary education could leave school just due to the income shock generated by the pandemic, for the same educational levels, UNESCO estimates that 10.9 million students are at risk of dropping out of school.
While current estimates of the population at risk vary, past experiences suggest that the pandemic will have a negative effect on education across the board. However, disadvantaged students face more situations that put them at risk of not returning to schools and perpetuating intergenerational cycles of poverty.
While we were not ready for the current crisis, we must not overlook the inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted both between the developed and developing countries as well as within each state’s borders. Although challenging, we must make sure that future policies build a more resilient and inclusive education system.
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Figures of November 2nd and April come from the data published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “COVID-19 Impact on Education”. Retrieved from: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse