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Covid-19 School Closures Could Cost $17 Trillion in Lost Earnings, Report Says

The impact on students of school closures due to Covid-19 is likely to be far greater than was previously expected, says a recent report issued by the World Bank, in cooperation with Unesco and Unicef.

According to the report, titled “The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery,” the current generation of students is at risk of losing $17 trillion in future income, equivalent to 14 percent of global GDP. That’s significantly higher than what was estimated last year, a loss of about $10 trillion in future earnings.

The pandemic shut down in-class learning at schools for most of the past two years, disrupting education for 1.6 billion students worldwide. Many countries adopted distance learning as an alternative, but the effectiveness of these programmes was uneven.

Mohamed Rady, a professor of educational psychology at Sohag University, in southern Egypt, said: “School closures led to a kind of stagnation, accompanied by a decline in acquired skills.”

The lost learning time and the failure to compensate for it “could lead to an irreparable loss at all educational and economic levels,” Rady added.

The report predicts that the proportion of children living in “learning poverty”—meaning they are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10—will increase because of the disruptions. The rate is already high in low- and middle-income countries, at 50 percent, and is expected to reach 70 percent.

Commenting on the report, Nashwa Issa, a professor at Al-Neelain University in Sudan, said that the pandemic “has deepened the gaps in education tremendously” and that those who will “pay the heaviest price are children from poor families.”

“Governments closed schools and relied on distance learning, but having the means to access the Internet was not available to many.”

Nashwa Issa
A professor at Al-Neelain University in Sudan

She explained: “Governments closed schools and relied on distance learning, but having the means to access the Internet was not available to many.” (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality”.)

Meagre Support for Education

The Covid-19 pandemic was expected to cost the economies of Arab countries a total of $227 billion by the end of 2021, the World Bank said in an earlier forecast. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, meanwhile, estimated the region would lose 1.7 million jobs in 2020 alone.

However, since the beginning of the pandemic, Arab countries have allocated only a “meagre” portion of their economic stimulus packages to education. The amount for education was estimated at about $664 million, or 1.25 percent of the total stimulus spending, and most of that went to higher education.

Arab countries were not alone in this regard. At the global level, the report says, less than 3 percent of the economic incentives provided by governments has been allocated to education. It will take much more funding to achieve an immediate learning recovery, officials of the World Bank, Unesco and Unicef said in a news release.

“The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable,” said Jaime Saavedra, global director of education at the World Bank. “The potential increase of learning poverty could have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families, and the world’s economies.”

Difficulties with Distance Learning

While nearly all countries offered distance learning opportunities, the quality and reach of these programmes was uneven. In most cases, these initiatives “provided at best partial substitutes for in-person learning,” the report said. It noted that more than 200 million students live in low- and middle-income countries that are not prepared to turn to distance learning during future emergency school closures. (See a related article, “Post-Covid-19, Arab Countries Need New Approaches to Education, U.N. Official Says”.)

Children from low-income families, students with disabilities, and girls were less likely to access distance learning than their peers, the report said. Reasons for that disparity, it said, included“a lack of access to digital devices, the availability of electricity and internet connectivity, and gender discrimination.

The school closures “exacerbated the gender divide,” Robert Jenkins, director of education for Unicef, said in the news release.

“The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable. The potential increase of learning poverty could have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families, and the world’s economies.”

Jaime Saavedra
Global director of education at the World Bank

“In some countries, we’re seeing greater learning losses among girls and an increase in their risk of facing child labor, gender-based violence, early marriage, and pregnancy,” Jenkins said. “To stem the scars on this generation, we must reopen schools and keep them open, target outreach to return learners to school, and accelerate learning recovery.” (See a related article, “Pandemic Will Force Thousands of Refugee Girls to Become Brides Instead of Students”.)

Exams in Arab Countries

Arab countries were among the many countries that made difficult decisions regarding high-stakes exams that affect whether students advance to the next level or graduate. At the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, 89 percent of Arab countries maintained elementary education exams as planned, and 11 percent canceled exams.

At the upper secondary level, 79 percent of Arab countries maintained exams as scheduled, 5 percent canceled exams, another 5 percent postponed exams, and 11 percent modified exams by reducing content or providing more flexibility for students.  (See a related article, “Arab Universities Struggle With Final Exams and Reopening Decisions”.)

Radi commented on the consequences of the exam disruptions. “Tests were dealt with randomly in most of the inter-school stages,” he said. “They were replaced by research papers submitted by students to schools with the help of their families, or teachers at their own expense. This method greatly contributed to the students not benefiting from the curricula, as their main goal was to succeed without academic achievement.” (See a related article, “Covid-19’s Second Wave Leaves Plans for Resuming On-Campus Studies in Doubt”.)

After a detailed review of the present and future costs of school closures, the report recommends that “reopening schools remains a top and urgent priority globally, to halt and reverse the course of learning losses, and for countries to develop learning recovery programs with the aim of ensuring that students of this generation obtain at least the same competencies as the previous generation, and that these programs cover three main objectives: strengthening the curricula, extending teaching time, and improving the effectiveness of learning.

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In its recommendations, the report states: “Reopening schools and keeping them open should therefore be the top priority for countries, as growing evidence indicates that with adequate measures, health risks to children and education staff can be minimized. Reopening is the single best measure countries can take to begin reversing learning losses.”

Related Reading

See a collection of all of Al-Fanar Media’s articles on how the pandemic has affected education, culture and the arts across the Arab region.

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