It was a question that parents were asking if it would be possible to learn remotely as well as in the classroom. The answer to that question is not, according to new global data.

You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest, including news from around the globe, interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.

Of all the pandemic edicts — the mask requirements, the vaccination mandates — few were more contentious than the decision to shutter schools. At the peak of closures last year, 1.6 billion students in 188 countries were locked out. Across the globe, 700 million of them reside in partially or fully closed school districts. The pandemic generation used computers, smartphones, radios, and televisions to learn. Parents were left with the question, “Can learning online be as effective as in-person classrooms?”

For the most part, new data suggests, the answer is no.

A comprehensive global report, released this week by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, adds to a growing body of evidence that students suffered massive educational losses during the pandemic. The projections for learning setbacks are worse than ever, and disproportionately affect poor or marginalized students regardless of their place in the world.

The more pessimistic projections — based in part on emerging data from myriad nations — are fueling fears that learning deficits will be an even bigger driver of inequality, both among and within countries, and in a way that may be hard to fix in the years ahead. The pandemic learning gap could widen disparities not only between countries and social classes, but between different generations — those who were school students in 2020 and 2021, and those who weren’t.

“We fear that in 15 years we’re going to write a lot of academic papers to identify and understand the negative premium or discount in terms of welfare, productivity and income just for belonging to the generation between 5 and 18 in 2021,” Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education, told me.

The burden of missed months in the classroom could linger for a lifetime. Worldwide, the study estimates, the pandemic generation is at risk of losing $17 trillion in future earnings from knowledge deficits, significantly more than the $10 trillion estimated last year, the new report concludes. This is due to school closings which have been longer than previously estimated and the fact that many remote learners often fall short of expectations.

So who suffered the worst?

Particularly in low- and middle-income nations, the longer schools were closed, the worse the educational losses. According to the authors of the study, students in South Asia and Latin America suffered a severe hit due to prolonged closures. Students younger than those of older age suffered more. Some data shows that girls suffered more than boys.

The quality of remote learning mattered. Teachers in many countries of low and middle income had little or no assistance with adapting to remote learning. Students also didn’t have access to computers, smartphones, electricity, or laptops. As a result, the share of children in low- and middle-income countries unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10 is projected to have soared between March 2020 and August 2021, leaping from estimations of 56 percent to 70 percent, according to figures updated after the report’s publication.

Data coming in from developing nations across the globe confirms some of the worst fears. In two Mexican states, a survey showed significant learning losses in reading and math for students aged 10 to 15. The share of 10-year-old students who cannot read or understand a simple piece of writing rose 15 percent for richer students and 25 percent for poorer students.

In Brazil’s Sao Paulo state, a study showed that on average students engaged in remote learning picked up only 28 percent of what they normally would from in-person classes. Sao Paulo’s statewide exams in 2021 showed across-the-board learning deficits compared with 2019, with larger losses for younger students. Fifth-grader math scores dropped dramatically, more than removing a decade worth of improvement.

The available data on a gender gap in learning losses is somewhat conflicting, but there is worrying evidence that girls might have fared worse. After South African primary-school students missed, on average, 60 percent of the school year, second-graders experienced losses in reading that equate to missing 57 percent to 70 percent of a school year, while fourth-graders showed learning losses equal to missing 62 percent to 81 percent of a school year. The reading performance of girls, who have traditionally performed better than boys in South Africa’s primary schools, was affected by much greater drops. In Nigeria, fathers were found to have discouraged their daughters from using the Internet, and fathers were less likely to help their daughters learn at home than their sons.

When measured by math knowledge, primary schoolchildren in Ethiopia learned only 30 percent to 40 percent as much in 2020 as they would during a normal year, and the learning gap between urban and rural students worsened.

Children in rich nations suffered steep educational losses, too — especially those who were economically disadvantaged. In Belgium, standardized test results also show learning losses, with sharper deficits among disadvantaged students. There is evidence from the United States that shows significant reading and math learning loss. In Texas, only 30 percent of third-graders tested at or above grade level in math in 2021, compared with 48 percent in 2019.

“The findings imply that students made little or no progress while learning from home and suggest losses even larger in countries with weaker infrastructure or longer school closures,” the authors wrote in April.

There is some reason for hope. Officials in Sao Paulo say students are making up ground through creative solutions such as extended school hours, doubling down on writing skills, and increased reading time.

Some countries weathered the learning storm far better than others. Uruguay had made significant investments in technological equality and social inclusion before the pandemic. It distributed laptops to students and teachers and offered free Internet access to them. This prepared it well for moving to remote learning. The country was the first in Latin America to open schools again after the epidemic. It introduced a gradual return to school that focuses on the poorest, rural and younger students. There has been a slight increase in reading and math skills at some schools grades, according to studies.

But globally, post-pandemic learning recovery is set to vary drastically. Too many children, especially those who are less fortunate and younger girls, could lose their chance at a better life because of the pandemic.

“Governments have to do extraordinary things because we have been through an extraordinary shock,” Saavedra told me. Are countries doing this? Not many, not many, unfortunately.”

Read More

Related Posts