Health and Healthcare Systems

Here's how COVID-19 affected education – and how we can get children’s learning back on track

Students in a classroom being taught by a teacher.

Nearly 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling between 2020 and 2022. Image: Unsplash/Taylor Flowe

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • As well as its health impacts, COVID-19 had a huge effect on the education of children – but the full scale is only just starting to emerge.
  • As pandemic lockdowns continue to shut schools, it’s clear the most vulnerable have suffered the most.
  • Recovering the months of lost education must be a priority for all nations.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on 11 March 2020, few could have foreseen the catastrophic effects the virus would have on the education of the world’s children.

During the first 12 months of the pandemic, lockdowns led to 1.5 billion students in 188 countries being unable to attend school in person, causing lasting effects on the education of an entire generation.

As an OECD report into the effects of school closures in 2021 put it: “Few groups are less vulnerable to the coronavirus than school children, but few groups have been more affected by the policy responses to contain the virus.”

Although many school closures were announced as temporary measures, these shutdowns persisted throughout 2020 – and even beyond in some cases.

As late as March 2022, UNICEF reported that 23 countries, home to around 405 million schoolchildren, had not yet fully reopened their schools. As China battled to contain new COVID-19 outbreaks, schools were closed in Shanghai and Xian in October 2022.

COVID has ended education for some

Nearly 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling between 2020 and 2022, UNICEF says. And it warns that many, especially the most vulnerable, are at risk of dropping out of education altogether.

The danger is highlighted by UNICEF data showing that 43% of students did not return when schools in Liberia reopened in December 2020. The number of out-of-school children in South Africa tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021, UNICEF adds.

When schools in Uganda reopened after being closed for two years, almost one in ten children were missing from classrooms. And in Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48% between 2020 and 2021.

A graphic showing the deepening learning crisis.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on children and their education. Image: UNICEF

Out-of-school children are among the most vulnerable and marginalized children in society, says UNICEF. They are the least likely to be able to read, write or do basic maths, and when not in school they are at risk of exploitation and a lifetime of poverty and deprivation, it says.

Lost learning time

Even when children are in school, the amount of learning time they have lost to the pandemic is compounding what UNICEF describes as “a desperately poor level of learning” in 32 low-income countries it has studied.

“In the countries analyzed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills,” the charity says.

A graphic showing estimated impacts of COVID-19 on learning poverty.
‘Learning poverty’ has increased because of the pandemic, the World Bank says. Image: World Bank

Analysis of the crisis by UNESCO, published in November 2022, found that the most vulnerable learners have been hardest hit by the lack of schooling. It added that progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Education had been set back.

In Latin America and the Caribbean – a region that suffered one of the longest periods of school closures – average primary education scores in reading and maths could have slipped back to a level last seen 10 years ago, the World Bank says.

Four out of five sixth graders may not be able to adequately understand and interpret a text of moderate length, the bank says. As a result, these students are likely to earn 12% less over their lifetime than if their education had not been curtailed by the pandemic, it estimates.

Widening the achievement gap

In India, the pandemic has widened the gaps in learning outcomes among schoolchildren with those from disenfranchised and vulnerable families falling furthest behind, according to a 2022 report by the World Economic Forum.

Even where schools tried to keep teaching using remote learning, the socio-economic divide was perpetuated. In the United States, a study found children’s achievement in maths fell by 50% more in less well-off areas, compared to those in more affluent neighbourhoods.

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Consultancy firm McKinsey says that US students were on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-21 school year. Disadvantaged students were hit hardest, with Black students losing six months of learning on average.

A graphic showing that by the end of 2020-21 school year, students were on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading.
Children from lower-income households have been hit hardest by the pandemic when it comes to education. Image: McKinsey

Researchers in Japan found a similar pattern, with disadvantaged children and the youngest suffering most from school closures. They said the adverse effects of being forced to study at home lasted longest for those with poorest living conditions.

However, in Sweden, where schools stayed open during the pandemic, there was no decline in reading comprehension scores among children from all socio-economic groups, leading researchers to conclude that the shock of the pandemic alone did not affect students’ performance.

Getting learning back on track

The World Bank outlines 10 actions countries can take, including getting schools to assess students’ learning loss and monitor their progress once they are back at school.

A graphic showing opportunities to make education more inclusive, effective and resilient that it was before the crisis.
World Bank efforts to boost education post-pandemic are reaching over 400 million students. Image: World Bank

Catch-up education and measures to ensure that children don’t drop out of school will be essential, it says. These could include changing the school calendar, and amending the curriculum to focus on foundational skills.

There’s also a need to enhance learning opportunities at home, such as by distributing books and digital devices if possible. Supporting parents in this role is also critical, the bank says.

Teachers will also need extra help to avoid burnout, the bank notes. It highlights a “need to invest aggressively in teachers’ professional development and use technology to enhance their work”.

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