• The switch to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has created huge disparities in the quality of learning across the world.
  • Learning Poverty is the share of 10-year-olds that cannot read and understand a simple text.
  • Before the pandemic, this was already at 53% in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank.
  • With massive school closures, Learning Poverty could increase to 63%, meaning 72 million more primary age kids will be learning poor.

A girl in 6th grade is sitting in a comfortable chair in front of her laptop engaging in a class through Zoom. Her 15 classmates are all connected. Since the pandemic induced lockdown, their parents, like hers, are mostly teleworking, and are able to supervise how they are engaging. She just got new headphones and a tablet where she can have her digital workbook open . She is shy and feels comfortable asking questions via chat. This way of interacting fits with her personality, so she is enjoying the class. Too many hours on Zoom is a drag, though, and sometimes she just mentally disconnects. A boy, just a few miles away is taking turns with his siblings to watch one hour of TV programing for 6th grade in the recently launched public TV educational channels. His teacher sends him homework through Whatsapp, but he can only see it at night on his mother’s smartphone. She is out most of the day working and must take the phone with her. His teacher came to his house some weeks ago to give him a brand-new textbook and a workbook. That was great, as there is no other reading material at home. He has not seen most of his classmates for many months. Actually, his teacher has not been able to contact several of his classmates for a long time either. These dramatically different experiences -and many shades of gray in between, are happening in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Kenya and Colombia. Some were able to easily cope with the changes after schools closed, but not the majority. 2020 marks a different childhood experience that these young people will remember for the rest of their lives. And a different education service, during many months, that might impact their skills and economic prospects for the rest of their lives.

This pandemic has generated suffering of an unthinkable scale across the globe. It is the worst economic, health and social crisis of the last 100 years. A once in a century event. But this suffering has been tremendously unequal, something that should not be a surprise given the increasing level of inequality we were already witnessing. An unequal suffering that invades many aspects of human life. The likelihood of not being properly treated if infected -and hence dying- is higher for the poor. Unemployment and less possibility of teleworking is higher for unskilled workers. Hours worked have fallen proportionately more for women.

Education opportunities have been lower and also dramatically unequal. Most countries have made heroic efforts to put remote learning strategies in place. But the quality and effectiveness is varied, and low. A recent survey of government responses to COVID-19 by UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Bank shows that only in half of the cases there is close monitoring of the usage of remote learning. And in those cases, remote learning is being used by less than half of the student population.

Education, Gender and Work Education and Skills COVID-19
Only in half of all cases there is close monitoring of the usage of remote learning.
Image: World Bank

This generation, who is -or should have been - in school during 2020 is bound to lose at least US$ 10 trillion in foregone future earnings. Unless we do something, this generation might do worse than the previous and the future one. This potential economic loss is linked to the loss in learning (and hence future productivity): at the WB we had assessed that before the pandemic Learning Poverty (the share of 10-year-olds that cannot read and understand a simple text), was already at an extremely high 53% in low- and middle-income countries. With the pandemic forcing massive school closures, we now project that Learning Poverty could increase to 63%. That is, 72 million more primary age kids will be learning poor. Reading is not all but it is a precondition to advance many of the aspects of education we care about. And the ability of a system to assure that their kids read with and understand a simple text is a good proxy of its overall quality.

In addition to lower learning in basic education, other mechanisms are at play. We expect large increases in dropout rates both in secondary and higher education and most likely the total number of schooling years of this generation will be lower. Younger children, those who were 5 to 7 years old in 2020 and were supposed to receive early childhood education services, lost that option completely, as no form of remote learning has been possible for them. Remember all the arguments in favor of the early years’ investments proving they had the highest private and social returns? Well, all those returns disappeared. Those children will never get those valuable years back and will be at a disadvantage compared to previous and later generations.

We were already witnessing an education crisis. A silent, slow moving crisis that was denying a future to many students. The pandemic is making this crisis even more serious.

In addition, data that suggest how unequal these learning losses are is slowly appearing. We have some evidence from rich countries. Despite their extensive technological reach, for a few European countries for which there is learning data post closures, there is evidence of learning losses and higher inequality as a result of the pandemic. In the Netherlands researchers found a decrease in student performance on a national exam equivalent to a fifth of a school year (roughly the actual time out of school due to the pandemic) and a growing inequality, likely due to children from better-off families receiving more parental support and having better remote learning environments. In the US, regardless of the type of college, fall of 2020 college enrollment rates for low-income high school students plunged by 29%, nearly double that of students from higher-income high schools.

Among middle income and poor countries, we only have some data of usage of different forms of remote learning, and they reveal different experiences for different children. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 45% of children had no exposure at all to any type of remote learning. Of those who did, it was mostly radio, TV or paper material. In a typical African country at most 10% of kids received some material through the internet. In Latin America, the situation is better, 90% of children received some remote learning; but less than half of that was through the internet. The rest, was radio and TV.

In many middle income countries a small minority, mostly in elite schools had several hours a day of synchronous instruction; on the other side of the income spectrum, many students had to settle for a few hours for their grade by TV or radio. In Chile, a country better prepared than most Latin American countries, it is estimated that the poorest quintile might lose 88% expected learning for this year, while the richest quintile “only” 64%. Note that in the southern hemisphere, the school closures that started a few weeks after the pandemic, coincided with the start of the school year (April or May). There was no northern summer vacation from May to August to try to figure out what to do. The school closures smacked at the precise moment to affect the school year almost in its entirety. The average Latin American country has lost 160 days. And for many children, in-classroom instruction vanished completely.

This horrendous year, however, carries the seeds for a promising change. It has shown that innovation and technology adoption is possible. Mental blocks can be lifted, and quickly. Starting in April, millions of children started communicating with their teachers and having their homework reviewed through WhatsApp or other social media. Not the panacea -and not everyone had access to a smartphone but allowed many children to maintain contact with the education system. In many systems, millions of teachers have started learning the use of social media and ed-tech tools at an unheard pace, forced by the circumstances.

And many other mindsets are changing. Education, as if there was any doubt, is mainly a social endeavor. Parents now have a whole new understanding about how much they can do to support their children’s learning, and at the same time, the immense influence that a teacher can have in the lives of children; and about the complexity of a teacher’s job. In the short run, this raises the stakes of smart and creative school management policies that could help increase face time between teachers and students in the coming months, trying at least hybrid experiences. Authorities, teachers, and parents have to cooperate and reach a balance to minimize both the negative health impacts and the negative education impacts.

In the medium term, this better understanding of the role of teachers raises the stakes of making teaching a socially valued career. A good teacher is the most important factor to guarantee quality education and makes a huge difference in a student’s life. This pandemic has shown that many great teachers have found creative ways of engaging with their students, with technology or without it. Yet, in many countries, we still see teachers selected from low quality applicant pools, political considerations defining selection, promotion and deployment of teachers. Countries that do not change that will simply fail. But that is changing. In the state of Edo in Nigeria, in the states of Ceara and Sao Paulo in Brazil, in Peru, in Turkey, shifts towards a meritocratic career are being consolidated, and countries are investing in coaching, schools based practical training, providing feedback to teachers to excel in their classroom engagement and giving them tools to perform better in class.

Going forward, as schools reopen even with modified schedules and curriculums, educational systems will need to be more flexible and adapt to the student’s needs. That flexibility requires giving teachers the tools and support to provide a more personalized and flexible learning experience that ensures that all children within the classroom learn. That is a critical element to making systems more equitable. Technology can have an incredibly powerful role to provide these tools and complement the work of the teacher. That is another critical lesson that some countries are starting to build on: the pandemic has shown that the digital divide has to be closed at a much faster rate. Technology will be critical also to make systems more resilient, allowing for a continued educational experience at home and at school.

All this will require resources. Closing the digital divide will not be cheap, having the right number of teachers and investing more in a professionalized well-respected career, will also require resources. The complex management of the school system -which is being pushed to its limits, requires resources. It is a challenge for both Ministries of Education and Ministries of Finance defining the investment path that is needed in the coming years to provide a minimally decent service for all its children and youth. This investment path requires a financing path that maps into higher domestic resources mobilization, mainly taxes. There is no magic. A renewed social contract, and a political commitment to invest what is needed to provide the right opportunities to all is unavoidable.