Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the world have been fully closed for an average of 20 weeks and partially closed for an additional 21 weeks (Figure 1). Since the onset of the pandemic, 147 million children missed at least half of in-person schooling; of these, 25 million missed nearly all of in-person schooling due to school closures (UNICEF, 2022a).
Duration of Full School Closures, as of 28 February 2022
Source. UNESCO Global Monitoring of School Closures.
In this paper, we discuss how and why school closures have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable children. First, we discuss the impact of the pandemic on learning outcomes, based on studies of both simulated and actual observed effects of school closures. Then, we present findings on the growing disparities during the pandemic, and offer six reasons why such disparities have widened. Lastly, we briefly discuss a framework for effective and equitable recovery of education for all children.
When the pandemic started, studies on its impact on learning focused on simulations of potential losses under various scenarios of school closure durations and mitigation measures. Reports on actual learning losses confirm the negative impact of school closures. In Mexico, losses ranged from 0.34–0.45 standard deviations in reading and 0.62–0.82 standard deviations in math (Hevia et al., 2022). In Cambodia, the share of Grade 6 students who failed to demonstrate basic proficiency increased by 25 percentage points in math and 10 percentage points in the Khmer language between 2016 and 2021 (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports & UNICEF, 2022).
Substantial losses have been reported even in high-income countries, where education systems were relatively better prepared for remote learning. In the United States, data suggest students were about four months behind in math and three months behind in reading by the start of the 2021–22 academic year (Dorn et al., 2021). In Warsaw, Poland, math and science performance among secondary school students declined by a third of a standard deviation, equivalent to more than a year’s worth of education (Jakubowski et al., 2022).
Our review of the literature on the effects of the pandemic, covering 112 countries and territories, finds that four out of five countries showed actual or projected declines in learning. Learning losses were reported for 93 countries, gains for two countries, mixed results for six countries, and neither significant losses nor gains for 11 countries (Figure 2). It is important to note that across the literature, the reported impacts are based on different assessments administered at varying timepoints. Moreover, only 36 of 112 countries had reported information on actual impacts of school closures on learning.
Impact of School Closures on Learning, Based on Existing Literature
Source. Based on 69 studies reporting simulated (in hatch pattern) and actual observed (in solid color) learning losses/gains, covering a total of 112 countries and territories.
Note. Severity of learning loss is based on the distribution of reported losses (‘Severe’ = top tercile of distribution). Losses are categorized based on the largest reported loss, regardless of age/grade and subject.
While COVID-related education disruptions have affected all learners, data suggest the most vulnerable children, including girls, socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and students in rural areas, have been hit the hardest. School closures threaten to exacerbate existing learning inequalities and reverse previous gains made in narrowing these gaps.
In rural Pakistan, girls experienced greater losses than boys across nearly all competencies and grades (Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, 2021). Among Grade 4 students in South Africa, learning losses for girls were 20 per cent and 27 per cent higher than for boys in home language and English reading, respectively (Ardington et al., 2021). Globally, gendered norms and expectations have affected pupils’ ability to participate in remote learning and return to school (UNESCO, 2021).
In rural Bangladesh, learning losses in literacy and numeracy among adolescent girls were three times larger for the poorest 40 per cent, compared to their non-poor peers (Amin et al., 2021). In Mexico, household survey data show much more severe learning losses among students of low socioeconomic status (Hevia et al., 2022). In the United States, students from low-income households were about 5 months behind in reading and math, compared to those from high-income households who were 2–3 months behind (Dorn et al., 2021).
In Ethiopia, while learning among students in urban areas progressed at less than half the speed of what would have been expected, students in rural areas progressed by only a third of the normal rate (Kim et al., 2021). In Kenya, among participants of an online tutoring platform, larger losses were observed for students in hardship areas and those in rural schools (Whizz Education, 2021).
A study in Uganda found that while older children aged 12–14 years showed some improvement in basic skills, the share of 8-year-old children who were non-readers increased from 33 per cent in 2018 to 51 per cent in 2021, and the share who were non-numerate increased from 22 per cent to 31 per cent (Uwezo Uganda, 2021). In rural Karnataka, India (Annual Status of Education Report, 2021), in São Paulo, Brazil (Lichand et al., 2021), and in Kenya (Whizz Education, 2021), larger losses were observed among students in earlier grades than in later grades.
Marginalized children often experience multiple compounding barriers in their access to quality education, facing simultaneous disadvantages related to poverty, disability, and gender, among others (de Neubourg et al., 2012). Taking into consideration children’s experience of multiple disadvantages, and based on existing literature, we offer six reasons behind why learning disparities have grown during COVID-19. These reasons often do not occur in isolation, but instead may be experienced simultaneously by marginalized children, putting them at even greater risk of falling further behind.
Prior to COVID-19, the learning crisis was already distributed unequally: nine in 10 children in low-income countries, compared to one in 10 in high-income countries, were unable to read and understand a simple text at age 10 (Azevedo et al., 2019). Pre-pandemic data show that around age 10, boys are 7 per cent less likely than girls to be able to read a simple text, but the gender gap varies considerably across countries: in Cambodia and South Africa, boys are about 40 per cent less likely to have the skills to read a simple text, but in Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, girls are about 20 per cent less likely to attain the same (UNICEF & Education Commission, 2022).
Children who are marginalized by disability are often left behind in education outcomes. Compared to children without disabilities, children with disabilities are 49 per cent more likely to have never attended school (UNICEF, 2021c). Based on countries with data from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys, children with functional difficulties are about 20 per cent less likely to have foundational learning skills than their peers without functional difficulties (UNICEF, 2022a).
Wealth is a strong determinant of learning disparities. Children in the poorest quintile have a 16-percentage point lower likelihood of having foundational reading skills and a 9-percentage point lower likelihood of having foundational numeracy skills than children from the wealthiest quintile (UNICEF, 2022a). At the end of primary school, the poorest students are 40 per cent less likely than the richest students to reach minimum reading proficiency (Jenkins et al., 2021). While there are many contributing factors to the learning crisis, a key driver is the availability and allocation of resources, with public education spending often disproportionately skewed towards children from the richest households (UNICEF, 2020a).
Evidence suggests that the longer the disruptions to schooling, the more likely students will fall behind: in Colombia, a study on the impact of varying durations of COVID-induced school closures across subnational entities found that students in areas where schools were reopened sooner showed lower levels of learning loss (Vegas, 2022). Figure 3 presents each country according to the proportion of children who can read a simple text at age 10 and the number of weeks its school system has been fully closed. Many countries with poor learning outcomes prior to the pandemic also tended to have longer school closures (at the bottom right of the figure), and extended education disruptions are expected to have exacerbated these inequalities.
Proportion of Children Who Can Read a Simple Text and Duration of School Closures as of 28 February 2022
Source. Authors’ calculations using learning poverty data from UNESCO and the World Bank and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys foundational learning skills data from UNICEF Global Databases, 2011–2020; school closures data from the UNESCO Global Monitoring of School Closures.
Note. Foundational learning skills data is used for countries without learning poverty data. Lighter shades indicate the skills attainment data were imputed for the country. The size of the circle represents the 2020 estimate of each country’s population aged 10–14 years retrieved from the UN Population Division.
One way in which school closures can widen disparities is through changing peer effects, which have large impacts on disadvantaged students. When schools are closed, poorer students, who also tend to be low-achievers, have fewer opportunities to interact with wealthier peers, who tend to be high-achievers. In their study, Agostinelli et al. (2022) found that school closures led to socioeconomic segregation and thus widened learning inequalities, such that average academic quality improved for students in high-income neighbourhoods but deteriorated for those in low-income neighbourhoods.
Within education systems, younger students tend to experience relatively longer school closures, particularly in poorer countries: while high-income countries lost an average of 46 pre-primary instruction days in 2020, pre-primary students in low- and middle-income countries lost an average of 106 in-person days of schooling, more than that observed in other education levels (Nugroho et al., 2021). Pre-primary students were also least likely to be prioritized in remote learning plans, school reopening plans, and remediation programmes (UNESCO et al., 2020; UNESCO et al., 2021).
When the pandemic started, at least 31 per cent of students could not be reached by digital and broadcast remote learning programmes. Seventy-six per cent of students who could not be reached by remote learning opportunities live in rural areas, and 72 per cent come from the poorest 40 per cent of households (UNICEF, 2020b). Wide gaps are observed in home internet access rates between those from the wealthiest (58 per cent) and poorest quintiles (16 per cent), and between those in urban (41 per cent) and rural areas (25 per cent) (UNICEF & ITU, 2020). In some countries, digital learning modalities were often mismatched with the infrastructure available. For instance, while Mongolia quickly developed a web portal for students with pre-recorded videos (UNICEF, 2021b), only 36 per cent of households have access to the internet, with a large gap between those in the wealthiest (92 per cent) and poorest quintiles (2 per cent) (National Statistical Office, 2019).
Marginalized children often belong to education systems that were unprepared for remote learning. In 2020, around one tenth of low- and lower-middle-income countries reported offering no support at the national level to help teachers transition to remote learning; in 2021, less than one third of low-income countries provided nationwide support to teachers on teaching content through remote modalities, professional development activities, guidelines for efficiency in remote teaching, and information and communications technology (ICT) tools and connectivity (UNESCO et al., 2021).
Marginalized children are also often left out of remote learning plans. In a 2020 survey, about half of all countries, and only one third of low-income countries, reported providing online learning support to learners with disabilities. Less than half of all countries provided improved access to infrastructure for learners in remote areas, learning materials designed for speakers of minority languages, and special efforts to make online learning more accessible to migrant and displaced learners. Among low-income countries, less than one tenth reported providing such measures (UNESCO et al., 2020).
While schools were shut, students were more dependent on parents for support with schoolwork at home, contributing to larger losses among those whose parents have low educational attainment. In the Netherlands, larger learning losses were observed among children of low-educated parents than those of high-educated parents (Haelermans et al., 2022). A study covering six countries in Africa found that while no learning loss was observed overall at the end of primary school, students whose parents had lower literacy levels or educational attainment were more likely to have poorer learning outcomes (UNESCO Institute for Statistics et al., 2022).
In low-income households, parents have fewer resources to support remote learning. In Ghana, children from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds reported higher levels of caregiver support for remote learning, such as helping with homework, buying learning materials, and telling children to study. By comparison, children in households that experienced more economic hardships during the pandemic engaged in fewer remote learning activities at home (Wolf et al., 2021).
Low-income parents may also experience time poverty—having limited time to supervise children’s learning due to work, chores, and other responsibilities—which is especially severe among women in disadvantaged settings. In developed countries, women spend twice as many hours per day than men on unpaid work such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, but in developing countries, this disparity rises to 3.4 times (Hyde et al., 2020). Parents in low-income households may also experience limited access to support structures, with low-income parents less likely to report working from home and more likely to report difficulty arranging child care during the pandemic (Karpman et al., 2020).
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to face demand-side barriers that hinder their return to school. In Uganda, about 40 per cent of parents of primary and secondary students who did not report back to school upon reopening reported the lack of tuition fees as a hindrance to returning to school; among parents of secondary-level learners, 31 per cent cited teenage pregnancy and 23 per cent cited early marriage as barriers (Uganda National Examinations Board, 2021).
School closures, along with disruptions to programmes and services and economic shocks triggered by the pandemic, have led to a loss of protection from teenage pregnancy and child marriage. Children in poverty could be forced into transactional sex, heightening their vulnerability to sexual exploitation, unplanned pregnancy, and arranged marriage (UNICEF, 2021a). Based on pre-COVID projections, 100 million girls will be at risk of becoming child brides by 2030; as a result of the pandemic, 10 million more girls may be pushed into early marriage (UNICEF, 2021a).
According to a report by ILO and UNICEF (2021), at the beginning of 2020, 160 million children—almost one in 10—were in child labour. Absent mitigation measures, 9 million more children may fall into child labour by the end of 2022. A large share of children in child labour are also out of school; however, even among those who are able to attend school, most may struggle balancing the demands of school and work, which may cause them to fall behind in their learning and eventually drop out (ILO & UNICEF, 2021; European Commission, 2021).
To help address learning losses, it is critical to understand students’ learning levels upon re-entering classrooms. Yet, a 2022 survey found that only half of low-income countries, compared to all high-income countries, reported having a systematic plan to measure learning upon school reopening (UNICEF et al., 2022). Only 66 per cent of low-income countries, compared to 85 per cent of high-income countries, reported implementing remediation programmes to address learning losses. Among low-income countries, only half provided catch-up programmes for children who have dropped out, a third provided individualized self-learning programmes, and less than a fifth provided tutoring and coaching schemes.
Children in low-income countries are also less likely to belong to school systems providing adequate support to teachers. In a 2021 survey, only half of low-income countries, compared to three quarters of high-income countries, reported providing professional, psychosocial, and emotional support for teachers nationwide (UNESCO et al., 2021). In 2022, only half of low-income countries, compared to over three quarters high-income countries, provided support for teachers to adapt their teaching to students’ learning levels through differentiated instruction (UNICEF et al., 2022).
Measures related to health and mental well-being are relatively limited in low-income countries. In 2022, only half of low-income countries reported having significant additional measures for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), 17 per cent reported the same for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), and 8 per cent for nutrition services in school (UNICEF et al., 2022). Without adequate and comprehensive support, marginalized children may not be able to catch up on missed learning even as schools reopen, and learning disparities may widen further.
Recovering and Reimagining Education in the Post-COVID Era
To mitigate learning losses and help children—especially the most vulnerable—catch up on missed learning, it is critical that school systems have comprehensive school reopening plans in place. Using the RAPID Learning Recovery Framework, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Bank (2022) have outlined five key actions needed to effectively and urgently recover education.
Marginalized children face greater obstacles to return to school, including demand-side barriers that place them at heightened risk of child labour, early marriage, and teenage pregnancy. As schools reopen, it is crucial to monitor children’s re-enrolment and understand why some have not returned to school. Strategies to reach every child and retain them in school include developing early-warning systems for dropout, conducting back-to-school campaigns, and addressing socioeconomic barriers to re-enrolment by providing free or low-cost services, scholarships, and cash transfers to children from poor families.
During the pandemic, many marginalized children were unable to continue receiving supervision and learning support at home. As school reopen, understanding children’s current learning levels will better direct their learning recovery journey. An important first step is to use diagnostic tools to assess where students are and inform the design of lesson plans, remedial activities, and catch-up programmes. Baseline measures of learning will also help inform decisions on where and how to mobilize resources at a system level to address learning losses and prevent dropout.
Marginalized children were already behind prior to the pandemic, and longer school closures have set them back even further. For many of these children, even basic literacy and numeracy skills have not yet been attained. Overly ambitious curricula, coupled with reduced instruction time due to school closures, can deter education recovery efforts. Instead, curricula should be reviewed, adjusted, and consolidated to prioritize the most important skills and knowledge required at each grade, including foundational literacy and numeracy and basic social-emotional competencies.
Limited access to and support on remote learning among marginalized children have widened learning disparities during the pandemic. Catch-up efforts will be necessary, especially for the most vulnerable learners who have been disproportionately affected by school closures. Education systems will need to adopt learning recovery programmes with evidence-based and contextually appropriate strategies. Efforts include reinforcing instruction through learner-focused recovery strategies such as individualized self-learning programmes and small-group tutoring, as well as supporting teachers with professional development and specialized personnel such as ICT staff.
Marginalized children often return to school systems that are less able to provide for their needs, which include not just academic learning, but also their health and well-being. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, schools should provide adequate WASH facilities and clear guidelines on safe school operations. Schools should ensure students receive tailored, comprehensive services, including access to MHPSS services and nutritious in-school meals, as well safeguard the well-being of teachers and other school personnel.
Finally, a number of key considerations must be taken into account to promote education recovery and transformation (UNICEF, 2022b). School systems should build on lessons learned and innovations adopted during the pandemic. Teachers will need multi-faceted support, including training on strategies to cope with lower learning levels. Parents, youth, and the wider community should be engaged in education recovery. Leadership should focus on reaching marginalized children at all levels, and accountability systems for ensuring all children return and learn should be strengthened. Sustainable funding will be critical, with priority given to addressing learning losses and additional funds targeted to the hardest-hit communities and schools. These key considerations can help pave the way towards RAPID-ly recovering and reimagining education in the post-pandemic era.
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 Although most studies in our review have shown larger losses for girls, a few studies have found larger losses for boys and no gender-differential impacts. For instance, a study on a small private school sample in Pakistan found that while girls remained roughly on track with their expected progress in math, boys appeared to be dropping behind (Crawfurd et al, 2021). In Ethiopia, no significant changes in gender gaps were observed following school closures at pre-primary and primary school levels (Kim et al., 2021).