We are living the largest shock to the global education system in modern history. It might be easy to underestimate the magnitude of the shock. This pandemic has swept the globe, closing schools in both rich and poor countries. Just picture the figure reached at the peak of the systemic global schools’ closure in mid-April: 1.8 billion children out of school. That is almost all school-age children, or 24% of the world’s population. The school closures are not just a long interruption of the education academic and social experience, but an uncertain tide, that we don’t know when it will really recede.
The lockdowns needed to fight the pandemic are generating one of the deepest recessions in history, which might leave many children and young people, particularly those more marginalized, outside the system. Many children and youth will have to enter the workforce to help support families, and many parents will not be able to cover the minimum costs that education entails, even in free public schools or universities.
We have lived through school closures before. Many countries have experienced at some point strikes or political crises that have shut down the system, even for a few months. We have lived through deep economic recessions before, with sharp impacts on public budgets and family disposable incomes. But we have never had this twin shock in the education system: long school closures, followed by a deep economic recession. So precisely when we must accelerate learning to make up for the lost time, when we need to reimagine education to adapt to a new way of living and interacting, both family and public budgets will be strained. Moreover, this is happening simultaneously in the whole planet, which means that international aid to support educational efforts in poor countries is compromised (this triple – not twin – shock is discussed by Samer Al-Samarrai and coauthors here).
To make the picture even more bleak (sorry), even before the COVID-19 pandemic the world was already living a learning crisis. Kids were not learning enough. 53% of children were not able to read and understand a simple text by age 10, as shown by the Learning Poverty indicator of the World Bank. And the learning crisis was not equally distributed. In most low- and middle-income countries, education opportunities were still defined by where you were born, who your parents were, the wealth of your family. The impact of different opportunities is now multiplied and magnified.
There is no doubt that just the immediate impact of the school closures will be tremendous learning losses, and potentially, many school dropouts. Fortunately (some good news), governments are actively trying to at least partially offset this negative impact. In what the World Bank is calling the Coping Phase in its most recent report on the potential impacts of the crisis, 140 countries have implemented some type of remote learning. 120 countries have implemented multiplatform strategies: combining online tools, with SMS, radio, TV, and distribution of printed material. In our view, the use of diverse media is critical, as online tools will reach only a small share of students (approximately 50% of students in middle-income countries and 10% in low-income countries have access to internet and a device). Hence, other platforms are needed to reach poorer students with some content. Without explicit policies to reach more vulnerable households, only rich and educated families will be able to cope with the shock. The mitigation effectiveness of these strategies will be partial. The teacher cannot be replaced by online education, the schools’ social experience cannot be replaced. But the more that can be done to partially mitigate, the better.
In a second phase, which the World Bank calls Managing Continuity, school systems will have to manage a period of high uncertainty. The impact of this shock might (only might) be over when a vaccine is developed and administered. In the meantime, life will be very different. Closures will, in some cases, be for two or three months, and there will be a gradual return to school buildings in the coming months. Other systems will resume in September or maybe later. And even when kids go back to school nobody knows how long the transition will take, with the possibility of a second wave of contagion in the northern hemisphere and, hence, the possibility of closing again.
But as authorities ease the restrictions, school attendance will depend on parental attitudes and school conditions. Better-off parents may have good connectivity at home and access to decent remote learning, with good online teacher-student interaction, access to online material, and with good monitoring and feedback mechanisms from teachers. They might be more cautious in agreeing to send their children back to schools. Other parents, for whom remote learning has implied little interaction, will be eager to send their children back to school.
In that context, it will be critical to prevent possibly irreversible reductions in school enrollments and to close learning gaps that will likely have expanded during the closures. Efforts should be geared to make up for the lost time to avoid permanent impacts in the human capital of school-age children and young people. This will require a set of measures targeted at reversing learning losses, starting from socioemotional support to compensatory learning programs, particularly for more vulnerable children.
There is an opportunity provided by the crisis response. Countries need to enter the phase of Improving and Accelerating Learning. The investments that are being and that will continue to be made in the coming months in technology, connectivity, radio, and TV, etc., should be the launching pad to build educational systems stronger and more equitable than before, a system that closes learning gaps for all children.
What we are now calling “remote learning” is the basis for a more, individualized, continued learning process that ensures that all kids learn the fundamental skills. This will require improvements in connectivity and ed tech readiness, in teachers’ training in digital skills, in the use of artificial intelligence software, and digital tools well-integrated into the curriculum. Using a “schools without walls” concept, learning must continue at home, and students should be reached through radio, TV, and printed material at close reach of all children all the time. There is a real opportunity to “build back better” and use the most effective crisis-recovery strategies as the basis for long-term improvements.
But this will require resources. To start with, the baseline on the financial front is not particularly great. In middle-income countries, expenditures per pupil in primary education are around $1,500 per year, one-sixth of the OECD average; in low-income countries, it is around $150 per year, about one-sixtieth. And the number of children in poor countries is growing fast. There will obviously be space to (in some cases, dramatically) increase efficiency, and in other cases reduce leakage and corruption. But it is unlikely that even the most efficient systems will be able to do much with $150 per student (or even with $1,500). Expanding financial commitment to education in this juncture will be very difficult, but the cost of inaction is immense.
This generation cannot be wasted, and, note that this generation will be paying the debts that all countries are incurring to finance the fight against the pandemic and its economic consequences. We cannot thank them by underinvesting in their human capital.