Impact of school closures on learning can be curbed with adequate catch-up strategies

The effects of the COVID-19 crisis on learning are particularly worrisome, especially at the primary level, as basic competencies are the building blocks for all education and are strong predictors of life opportunities. If learning losses are inevitable, they can be reduced if the right decisions are made through well-designed system-wide interventions that include teachers, as well as families and caregivers.

July 29, 2020 by Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics
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4 minutes read
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Empty desks lined up in a primary school in Nicaragua.
Empty desks lined up in a primary school in Nicaragua.
Credit: World Bank/Arne Hoel

 

The effects of the COVID-19 crisis on learning are particularly worrisome as underscored in a recent article in The Economist. This is especially true at the primary level as basic competencies are the building blocks for all education and are strong predictors of life opportunities.

These skills are the easiest to lose when schooling is interrupted, as studies on reading ability losses during vacations show, and the hardest to regain once schooling restarts. Yet, they present a fertile area for improvement as the techniques to acquire foundational skills are better known than those used to augment skills at the secondary education level or in more specialized subjects.

Learning losses measured soon after the disruption, as a study from South Africa shows, are greater than what actual days of schooling lost suggest. It is unclear whether these losses worsen, stay the same or shrink over time.

However, it is likely that the impacts worsen over time if learning losses are not addressed, as learning is cumulative and children who are left behind will lag even further. This is what key research in Pakistan showed years after the 2005 earthquake.

Thus, a prudent and reasonable assumption is that such losses will worsen without adequate interventions, such as remedial classes and additional time allotted to complete classes.

Projected figures illustrate the learning gaps and simulate a worst-case scenario for education systems that do not adopt catch-up strategies relative to those that do.

Figure 1. Projected learning losses with and without catch-up strategies in primary education.

In this graph, the green ‘pre-COVID’ curve assumes a reasonable trend of 2% gains per year in primary education based on previous UIS work. The purple and yellow trajectories signify scenarios with and without catch-up measures, respectively.

They project that learners will sustain education losses during the pandemic due to school days lost. However, education systems that implement remedial strategies will help at least some learners catch-up to the pre-COVID trajectory. Those that do not will have to wait until the cohort of students affected by the pandemic has moved on to the secondary education level.

This scenario assumes that there will be no new pandemic or health crisis that generates further education interruptions. Epidemiologists, however, have long predicted a COVID-like pandemic and warn that there may be more pandemics on the horizon.

Thus, mounting an adequate education response now with the current pandemic will serve at least three purposes. It will help us:

  • deal with the current impact
  • improve systems overall, and
  • help prepare us for the next crisis.
Figure 2. Projected learning losses with and without catch-up strategies in secondary education

In secondary education as this graph shows, learning levels are projected to return to the pre-pandemic trend by 2024, presuming that countries deploy ‘catch-up’ strategies.

However, the return will take almost a decade for learners in systems that go without these strategies, as the lag will affect primary education graduates who did not receive any remedial support.

Mitigation strategies could include among others: staggered school days with fewer students in school to enforce social distance but increase learning; person-to-person online remedial tutoring using more advanced students; in-class remedial sessions for fewer students; and use of TV and radio podcasts to cover topics. For more on innovative catch-up strategies, consult this article also from The Economist.

Failing to deploy educational catch-up strategies should be avoided at all cost, as this will ultimately hamper efforts to generate the vital skills that citizens need to function in societies and economies.

A UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank survey of national education responses was mounted in May as a response to COVID-19 to capture the impact of mass global school closures.

The survey, funded in part by a GPE COVID-19 global grant, provides an initial snapshot of the impact on learning.

Preliminary results of the first iteration of the survey on national responses show that many countries are still not considering remedial actions, such as increasing learning time or accelerating learning (time-compressed programs/classes) – despite the risk of learning losses.

Further compounding the education crisis, the limitations of remote schooling as a solution has proven greater for poorer households, in part because they have less access to the internet.

Percentage of countries planning to implement catch-up strategies in response to school closures, by region and income level.

Figure 3. Percentage of country planning to implement catch-up strategies in response to school closures

The digital gap clearly creates wider learning discrepancies in developing countries, especially in those where teachers were not prepared to use online and other distance learning platforms.

Teachers play a key role in guiding students through the digital learning process, and the graph below illustrates how many teachers were trained in advance to take on the task of teaching via remote learning platforms during this pandemic.

Figure 4. Percentage of countries with teachers trained to use online platforms

In our estimation, the damage to learning that was done due to school closures can be dampened or mended with the use of catch-up strategies.

Aside from closing the digital gap, to ensure that disparities in learning do not widen further in low-income nations – especially given the likelihood of further school closures due to this pandemic or future ones – it is crucial to prepare learners and teachers to navigate the remote learning landscape.

Ultimately, learning losses are inevitable, but they can be reduced if the right decisions are made through well-designed system-wide interventions that include teachers, as well as families and caregivers.

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I am very interested in Figures 1: Projected learning losses with and without catch-up strategies in primary education & Figure 2: Projected learning losses with and without catch-up strategies in secondary education. Could you kindly provide an explanation on how you calculate and construct the two graphs, please?

Ministries of Education, teachers, administrators and stakeholders should have knowledge of such information. Strategic management and policy should effect what goes on in planning for such eventuality. Teachers must be trained and retrained so they can buy in so as not to leave anyone behind. . In poor communities , the fallout is great. We are seeing this. . We need to work together.

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