Education is a particularly challenging issue in the context of the pandemic. The global disruption to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is without parallel and it has brought substantial interruptions to education across the globe. Its effects on learning have been severe. The crisis brought education systems across the world to a halt. This pandemic has affected educational systems worldwide, leading to the near-total closures of all types of educational institutions i.e. early childhood education and care, primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities etc.
Most governments decided to temporarily close educational institutions in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Approximately 830 million learners are currently affected due to school closures in response to the pandemic. According to UNICEF monitoring, 23 countries are currently implementing nationwide closures and 40 are implementing local closures, impacting about 47 percent of the world’s student population. However, in 112 countries schools are currently open.
As compared to February 2021, in September 2021, 27 percent of the countries continued to be fully or partially closed. In South Asia the closure of schools was increased from 18% to 25%. In East Asia and the Pacific, the rate of closures of schools was increased from 6 to 21 percent. In Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern and Southern Africa, however, the share of countries where schools are fully closed declined between February and September 2021.
Every hour in school is precious, and every child should be given the opportunity to go back to school. Schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours, and counting, of in-person learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. As a result, young learners have been cut off from their education and the other vital benefits schools provide. As countries return from academic break, no effort should be spared to reopen schools, as schools are critical for children’s learning, safety, health and well-being.
Globally, around 131 million schoolchildren in 11 countries have missed three quarters of their physical learning from March 2020 to September 2021. Among them, 59% or nearly 77 million have missed almost all in-person instruction time. These 77 million students come from six countries. Among these countries, Bangladesh and the Philippines represent 62 million of the 77 million learners impacted. Around 27 percent of countries continue to have schools fully or partially closed. Additionally, according to UNESCO’s latest data, more than 870 million students at all levels are currently facing disruptions to their education.
The worldwide school closures, alongside other secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, are projected to have far-reaching implications in the short and the long term for children and their families. On the one hand, school environments risk high rates of COVID-19 transmission, and closures are seen as necessary measures to protect public health. On the other hand, the linkages between schools and children’s health, safety, and life prospects are significant. Therefore, it is required to consider of how schooling benefits children and families. Lost schooling is likely to compromise the benefits of education which includes:
- No access to school exposes children to abuse and trauma if their homes are unsafe.
- The families missed out on critical health services and information which are usually available at schools.
- Disruptions to school feeding programs resulting that millions of children no longer have access to a regular nutritious meal. The economic shock of the pandemic will likely push many children into poverty, increasing risks of malnutrition, stress, protection violations, and child labor.
- Governments’ and donors’ cuts to education and aid funding may further restrict recovery.
The children belongs to poor families do not have internet access, personal computers, TVs or even radio at home, amplifying the effects of existing learning inequalities. Students lacking access to the technologies needed for home-based learning have limited means to continue their education. As a result, many face the risk of never returning to school, undoing years of progress made in education around the world.
After the closures of schools, many of them started exploring alternative ways to provide continuous education using technologies such as Internet, TV, and radio. However, access to these technologies is limited in many low- and middle-income countries, especially among poor households. While more than 90% of the countries adopted digital and/or broadcast remote learning policies, only 60 percent did so for pre-primary education. Globally, the broadcast or digital media allowed reached 69 percent of schoolchildren in pre-primary to secondary education. Due to the lack of necessary technological assets at home 31 percent of schoolchildren worldwide cannot be reached by the broadcast/ or Internet-based remote learning. Online platforms were the most used means by the governments to deliver education while schools remain closed, with 83 percent of countries using this method. However, this allowed for potentially reaching only about a quarter of schoolchildren worldwide.
- Television had the potential to reach the 62 percent students, globally.
- 16% of schoolchildren could be reached by radio-based learning, globally.
- Globally, 3 out of 4 students who cannot be reached by the remote learning policies.
Considering these data, it is important that countries do not rely on any single remote learning channel to reach all children. Additionally, expanding access to Internet and other digital solutions for all children would be one key long-term priority to reduce learning vulnerabilities.
The closure of schools, colleges and universities not only interrupts the teaching for students around the world; the closure also coincides with a key assessment period and many exams have been postponed or cancelled. Internal assessments are perhaps thought to be less important and many have been simply cancelled. But their point is to give information about the child’s progress for families and teachers. The loss of this information delays the recognition of both high potential and learning difficulties and can have harmful long-term consequences for the child. Importantly, the lockdown of institutions not only affects internal assessments. In the UK, for example, all exams for the main public qualifications – GCSEs and A levels – have been cancelled for the entire cohort. Depending on the duration of the lockdown, we will likely observe similar actions around the world. One potential alternative for the cancelled assessments is to use ‘predicted grades’.
Pakistan’s education scenario
As schools closed nationwide during pandemic lockdowns, distance learning programs and open educational platforms like the TeleSchool initiative enabled students to continue learning.
In March 2020, the Government of Pakistan closed all schools as part of a nationwide lockdown, prompting the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFE&PT) to seek education alternatives to ensure learning continuity.
During the first phase of school closure, Pakistan launched the TeleSchool initiative in collaboration with leading EdTech providers such as Knowledge Platform, Sabaq.pk, Sabaq Muse, and Taleemabad to broadcast free learning content to grades 1-12 students. After briefly opening for 6 weeks, schools were closed again in November. In December, the government launched its first Radio-school to expand student outreach in response to the second school closure.
Girls’ online education fiasco
Nearly one out of three girls in Pakistan has never been to school. Distance from schools, security, and lower numbers of female teachers are among the main reasons behind girls’ low enrollment and high dropout rates, translating later into only 26 percent female labor force participation. Technology, coupled with community support and parents’ involvement, can play a critical role in enabling more girls to access a safer, skills-oriented education.
By confining them at home, COVID-19 has limited students’ access to schools, teachers, and learning materials. Distance learning programs have provided an opportunity to surpass this challenge and enable uninterrupted access to resources. To support this, the MoFE&PT has established a new ‘Distance Education Wing’ to continue developing alternate modes of education, even after schools reopen. Provincial governments have also used digital tools to ensure learning continuity. In collaboration with
Sabaq Muse, Sindh Government rolled-out a learning app in 700 schools offering animated and interactive story-based learning content, focusing on early years and primary education. The app provided free learning materials in Urdu, English, and Sindhi. Capturing student interest is key to improving learning outcomes both at home and in the classroom. Teach the World Foundation focuses on engaging students through gamification, self-learning, personalization, and real-time data tracking to improve learning outcomes using existing resources. Another startup, Kar Muqabla, infuses play and competition to enhance students’ learning experience, linking students from across the country through school competitions and providing a space for non-academic creativity.
The digital divide
The global crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed us further into a digital world, and changes in behavior are likely to have lasting effects when the economy starts to pick up. But not everyone is ready to embrace a more digitized existence.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the uptake of digital solutions, tools, and services, speeding up the global transition towards a digital economy. However, it has also exposed the wide chasm between the connected and the unconnected, revealing just how far behind many are on digital uptake. However, it has also exposed the wide chasm between the connected and the unconnected, revealing just how far behind many are on digital uptake. Inequalities in digital readiness hamper the ability of large parts of the world to take advantage of technologies that help us cope with the coronavirus pandemic by staying at home. This situation has significant development implications that cannot be ignored. It is to be ensured that we do not leave those who are less digitally equipped even further behind in a post-coronavirus world.
Digital platforms are also thriving as consumers seek entertainment, shopping opportunities and new ways of connecting during the crisis.
Digitalization is allowing telemedicine, telework and online education to proliferate. It is also generating more data on the expansion of the virus and helping information exchanges for research. There has been a leap in teleworking and online conferencing, amplifying the demand for online conferencing software such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Cisco’s Webex and Zoom, the analysis says. According to Microsoft data, the number of people using its software for online collaboration climbed nearly 40 percent in a week.
The tertiary education
The careers of this year’s university graduates may be severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have experienced major teaching interruptions in the final part of their studies, they are experiencing major interruptions in their assessments, and finally they are likely to graduate at the beginning of a major global recession. Evidence suggests that poor market conditions at labor market entry cause workers to accept lower paid jobs, and that this has permanent effects for the careers of some. Graduates from programs with high predicted earnings can compensate for their poor starting point through both within- and across-firm earnings gains, but graduates from other programs have been found to experience permanent earnings losses from graduating in a recession.
What could be done?
The global lockdown of education institutions is going to cause major (and likely unequal) interruption in students’ learning; disruptions in internal assessments; and the cancellation of public assessments for qualifications or their replacement by an inferior alternative.
What can be done to mitigate these negative impacts? Schools need resources to rebuild the loss in learning, once they open again. How these resources are used, and how to target the children who were especially hard hit, is an open question. Given the evidence of the importance of assessments for learning, schools should also consider postponing rather than skipping internal assessments. For new graduates, policies should support their entry to the labor market to avoid longer unemployment periods.
[box type=”note” align=”” class=”” width=””]The author, Nazir Ahmed Shaikh, is a freelance columnist. He is an academician by profession and writes articles on diversified topics. Mr. Shaikh could be reached at email@example.com.[/box]