The massive, yet invisible cost of keeping schools closed

A used medical face mask hangs on a wooden chair in an empty classroom.
A used medical face mask hangs on a wooden chair in an empty classroom.
copyright: Shutterstock / Suchawalun Sukjit

The impact of school closures on children and young people across the world is gigantic. The prolonged closures of schools since March 2020 resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the most serious education crisis in the last 100 years. As Chile's Minister of Education Raul Figueroa said when he explained his government's efforts to restore learning, "we have had an earthquake in education." My World Bank colleague, Indermit Gill, accurately likens the school closures impact on education to a bomb which destroys only one capital - the human capital. 

I wonder if societies and governments have internalized the magnitude of the shock. In countries with extensive school closures in South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, the number of school days lost reaches 200. Such immense learning shocks are akin to a raging forest fire that must be put out. The World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF conceived the Mission: Recovery of Education 2021, as an urgent task for this year. 

If governments and societies want to “walk the talk” and demonstrate that the well-being of children and young people is indeed a political priority, urgent and decisive action is needed to open schools safely where they remain closed and to prioritize policies to ensure recovery of lost learning.   

Do school closures help combat the pandemic?  

Since the beginning of the pandemic, school closures were almost universally viewed as a mechanism to prevent contagion. The idea was based on presumptions rather than evidence. In the early stages of the pandemic, governments were navigating fearfully in a sea of ignorance. Even if children were not susceptible to getting seriously ill, they were presumed to be efficient transmitters of the virus. For some countries, including Sweden, such presumptions were not enough, and schools remained open. But those were exceptions.

Now we have evidence suggesting that those presumptions were misplaced. A synthesis of epidemiological surveys and household-level analysis indicates that children transmit the virus less efficiently than adults. Evidence from school reopening initiatives suggest that with precautions and strategies to minimize transmission in place, schools are not a major source of transmission, nor high-risk environments for staff. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has concluded that for adults, the risk of infection in a school setting is no greater than at home or in the community, and also that despite new variants of the virus the negative impacts of proactive schools closures outweigh the benefits, so they should be used only as the last resort. Studies in Germany and the United States and the experiences of countries where schools have reopened between the first and second waves suggest that with appropriate mitigation strategies, reopening has not led to an increase in infections among students, teachers or in the community, even prior to the start of the vaccination processes.

The bottom line is that there is no scientific evidence to presume that schools are at greater risk than other occupational or recreational environments of similar density. Nothing can justify keeping schools closed when at the same time restaurants, bars or shopping malls reopen. The protracted closure of schools was meant to protect adults who are at greater risk of falling severely ill - perhaps to no avail. And given the experiences of safe reopening in countries prior to vaccine development, education systems don't need to wait for widespread community vaccination before reopening.  

What has been the cost of school closures?

There are no estimates of the benefits of school closures. In contrast, the cost of keeping schools closed in terms of children's learning, mental health, and socio-emotional development is extortionate. Despite countries’ laudable and indispensable efforts to provide remote education, which involved rapid adjustments, many countries are aware that remote learning has been a weak, unequal, and very partial compensation for face-to-face education. The evidence of that is mounting.

The World Bank's simulations at the end of 2020 showed that the Learning Poverty indicator – the percentage of ten-year-olds who cannot read and understand a simple text – would likely increase from 53 percent before the pandemic to 63 percent. That figure may be an underestimate as the calculations were based on a length of school closures that have been now vastly exceeded in many countries. We now have data on the actual huge learning losses emerging in both developed and developing countries. Evidence from the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom, countries that were able to measure learning when students returned to the classroom after the first wave of the pandemic, shows that despite short school closures and high internet penetration, there were significant learning losses. More recently, a study in Sao Paulo, where data was collected at the beginning and the end of 2020, shows that students learned 27.5 percent of what they would have learned if face-to-face classes had continued. In South Africa, where early grade students missed on average 60 percent of school days in 2020, Grade 2 students incurred learning losses equivalent to 57-70 percent of a year of learning. In Chile, initial assessments show that in 2020, in grades 6 through 12, despite a partial reopening, students  mastered only 60 percent of curriculum content in reading and between 47 and 27 percent in math.

Losing the most important tool to equalize opportunities

Moreover, with schools closed the main space to equalize opportunities was lost.  In all available studies, there is evidence of much larger losses the lower the socio-economic status. The school, despite its limitations in poor and in middle-income countries, is the main mechanism to equalize opportunity. For countless children and young people, school is the only safe space for stimulation, socialization, and meaningful learning. That space has disappeared for too many and for too long. While schools were closed, children’s opportunities for educational stimulation were defined by conditions at home. For the fortunate ones, those conditions included an internet connection, access to books, a space to work and parents to provide guidance. Under such conditions, some learning is possible. Others lacked those prerequisites for learning, and consequently lost their entire learning experience. The stark differences between children’s home learning environments during the pandemic epitomizes inequality of opportunity.

What are education systems most concerned with recovering learning doing?

First, we see concern about students’ learning losses. It is critical to have information about the magnitude of learning losses at the national and local levels. If education systems do not measure learning, they are flying blind. Choosing to measure current learning levels is not an easy decision, because in many cases the measurement of learning will bring bad news. However, grasping the reality at hand and understanding the extent of the loss of learning is vital to design apt remedial education and acceleration policies throughout the country.

Secondly, we observe judicious efforts to reopen schools safely. The re-opening process must be an evidence-based decision. Hence, the main recommendation is ensuring schools have several prevention strategies in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19. These include physical distancing, wearing facemasks, testing, frequent handwashing and improving ventilation. Another key element is the early warning system and communication campaigns to bring back the students who have disengaged from the education system. Safety will be even greater if teachers’ vaccinations are prioritized; according to the Global Education Recovery Tracker, of Johns Hopkins, UNICEF and the World Bank, just over half of countries have prioritized teachers in national vaccination strategies. Finally,  is  advisable to start with primary schools as evidence shows that the risk of transmission is lower among younger children. It is also more challenging to compensate for face-to-face education through remote instruction with young children.

Thirdly, we note a flexibility to adapt and meet the current needs of each child in order to recover learning losses. School calendars need to be adjusted to make up for lost time and the curriculum must be adapted to prioritize foundational learning, with flexibility at the local level in accordance with the needs of students.  

Flexibility may imply a staggered return to school, staggered arrival times, with students on alternating attendance schedule to reduce the number of students per classroom. To facilitate the return, teachers should be provided with tools to assess the level of learning of each student, both from an academic and socio-emotional point of view. Every child is different, and their experience during the pandemic may have been different; even within the same classroom, a child may have been in a home with books, access to the internet, a space to work and parents who stimulated him, while his classmate may have been completely disconnected from the learning process. This makes for a complex recovery process which will require remedial strategies on foundational learning, socioemotional support to students, as well as intense support and training programs for teachers.

School openings must be safe, flexible, and voluntary. But I would add an additional feature: they must also be urgent.  The return to face-to-face learning is urgent. Decisions about school openings as well as policy actions for accelerated learning need to be underpinned by the available evidence, not be influenced by political considerations. 

We must all acknowledge that the pedagogical, administrative, and logistical tasks involved in the reopening process are extremely challenging.  But we must also remember that even if we make every effort to recover learning, we cannot turn back time, and that lost learning, lost play and lost stimulation in childhood and adolescence are difficult to recover.  No one is 6 or 7 years old again.  

Protecting and recovering learning for this generation of children and youth is a moral imperative, like defusing a ticking bomb that threatens to evaporate the human capital that countries and their economies need to ensure more equitable and prosperous societies in the future. Every single day matters, which is why we must act now to protect our children’s future. 


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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