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The intergenerational impacts of global learning loss

Children wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus attend a pre-school in Ahmedabad, India, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Pre schools in Gujarat state reopened Thursday after two years following decline in number of COVID-19 cases. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Children wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus attend a pre-school in Ahmedabad, India, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Pre schools in Gujarat state reopened Thursday after two years following decline in number of COVID-19 cases. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

In 2020, there was a moment when almost every single school-aged child on planet earth was out of school.

Almost 1.6 billion learners worldwide endured school closures that lasted from a few months, to two years.

It will change their lives forever.

“We are increasingly seeing data bubbling up around early marriages and early pregnancy rates, increased … child labor rates. Where I am losing sleep over — and all of us should be — is the significant number of children who will never return back to school.”

Today, On Point: The long, intergenerational cost of pandemic learning loss around the world.


Robert Jenkins, director of education and adolescent development at UNICEF. Author of the report The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery. (@RobertG_Jenkins)

Mary Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a nonprofit promoting equitable education in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Author of the report Illuminating the COVID-19 learning losses and gains in Uganda. (@MNakabug)

Olavo Nogueira, executive director of Todos Pela Educação. (@onogueirafilho)

Interview Highlights

A UNICEF report titled The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery, calls this global learning loss a mounting crisis within a crisis. What leads you to that specific conclusion?

Robert Jenkins: “It’s a crisis upon a crisis, meaning we were experiencing global learning crisis, pre-pandemic. In many low and middle income countries, children were well off the mark of where they should be, in terms of learning outcomes. And then, with two years or more of the pandemic affecting education, now we have exactly what you mentioned — significant learning loss, across the board, including literacy and numeracy, meaning the ability to write and do basic math.

“And that’s now up. As you mentioned, 70% of 10 year olds, estimated to be up to 70% of 10 year olds who are unable to read the simple text in low and middle income countries. So, this is right now … at the breaking point of, indeed, it being insurmountable. So indeed, it requires very urgent action across the board.”

Can you share a few of the measures that you used to come to that conclusion?

Robert Jenkins: “We don’t kind of use these terms without serious consideration. Because we don’t want to kind of cry wolf, if you’d like. And indeed, we are in very unparalleled, unprecedented times. And I think that’s because, as you mentioned, the scale of the grid, the numbers of children affected at the height 1.6 billion, that’s over 92% of the enrolled children globally were affected by school closures. But then it’s prolonged nature. Two years. We were talking about 80 weeks, 83 weeks in some countries.

“So that is having profound impact on children. Both in terms of levels of learning loss, but also in terms of overall support and services that schools provide to children. … But I do want to just emphasize right from the get go that children, marginalized children, children that were vulnerable before the pandemic, have been disproportionately affected. So there isn’t sort of an average child that’s been affected. It’s really a unique experience for each child. And we are seeing very worrying data that marginalized children pre-pandemic, and during the pandemic, were disproportionately impacted, resulting in growing disparities and inequities.”

On the long lasting impact of the pandemic on global learners

Robert Jenkins: “If you take kind of the last two, three decades, we have an amazing progress in global access to education, more children coming to school. However, and then as I was mentioning before, we were experiencing a crisis in the sense of they weren’t learning at the levels that we were all hoping for. And that’s a reflection of continuing the need to focus on the quality of education, and strengthening education systems in those countries. Then the pandemic comes along, two years of impact, and indeed now we have impact on individual children, something we’ll talk about. But as you’re mentioning, the impact on their communities, on their economies, on their countries will be very long lasting.”

On the impact of learning loss for students in Uganda

Mary Goretti Nakabugo: “The situation in Uganda is quite different. The schools, yes, for some children, especially those in lower classes, we’re talking about preschool and the Primary grade 1 to 3, those were closed for almost two years, ever since corona hit in March 2020. They never opened for them until January this year, in 2022. But for some classes, schools are gradually reopened in September 2020, up to June 2021. So it doesn’t apply to everyone.

“But yes, for those whose classes were not opened at all. It’s close to two years, and that is where we see actually the highest loss in terms of learning outcomes. And really, those learning outcomes were actually very low even before the pandemic. So, for example, for grade three children in 2018, we did a National Learning Assessment. 90% of those could not actually read and comprehend. That situation has not changed much after the closure. But we see that the children who had not really acquired these learning outcomes, even before the pandemic, almost the little they had learned, disappeared.

“I’ll give you just an example. For example, in Primary 3, children who could not even recognize letters of the alphabet, they could not read at all. In 2018, when we last did a National Learning Assessment, there were about 41% of those. In 2021, when we did the National Learning Assessment again, after the pandemic, that percentage had increased to 55%. So as we speak now, those children who were Primary 3when we did the learning assessment are now promoted automatically Primary 4 [9 to 10 year old children]. That means the current class of Primary 4, you have 55% of Primary 4children who cannot even [recognize] letters of the alphabet.”

On the pandemic response in Brazil

Olavo Nogueira: “We had very, very heterogeneous answers during the pandemic. And most of all, because of a lack of coordination from the federal government. During this pretty much two years now of the pandemic, we’ve had a national government that pretty much, right from the get go, tried to deny the gravity of the pandemic. We had a national government that had very little sense of urgency, in terms of running after the vaccine. So we really dropped the ball from a purchase standpoint for two to three months. We could have had vaccines and they were late. And on top of that, as it relates to education, there was no federal government articulation.

“So in order to provide a little bit of context. Brazil is a huge country, a little over 200 million people, a continental country, and it’s a federative country, which means that of the states, which are 27, and the municipalities, which are 5,500 or so, have a great deal of autonomy. And it’s a very unequal country. So when facing a disaster like the pandemic, if you don’t have central coordination in terms of the response, what to do, what should be the solutions?

“Federal government helping out the poorer states and their municipalities, we would have very, very, very much trouble in facing adequately. And unfortunately, that’s what we saw. States and municipalities sort of acting on their own, thinking about solutions on their own, opening up schools at different times with very little similar criteria. So unfortunately, we had a scenario where mainly due to the lack of coordination from a federal standpoint, we had a very different answers all over Brazil.”

What needs to happen in order to help these nations regain what has been lost?

Robert Jenkins: “Now moving forward, in those countries that schools are still closed, they need to reopen. And we need to do all we can collectively to take best practices and keep schools open. As kids return, as we heard from Mary in Uganda. Their learning needs to be assessed and then accelerate progress, sort of catch up programs, accelerated learning programs differentiated for each child. So indeed, they receive the learning support tailored to their individual levels of learning and their aspirations.

“And we intensify that support so we can enable children to catch up. But then, as children are walking back into school, as we’ve been talking about, their support needs to go beyond learning. Psychosocial support, mental health, nutrition, water and sanitation, a sense of protection. So all those services need to be accentuated, further supported, particularly in low and middle income countries, where those services are often not readily available, but are in desperate need by children.

“And then as we recover, we need to take this opportunity to transform education systems, so we don’t fall back to where we were pre-pandemic. But indeed leverage amazing, exciting best practices so we can transform the learning environments. So children, again, can realize their full potential. In the end, this is all about ensuring each and every child is able to realize their full potential, their dreams that all of our children have.”

What will happen if those ambitions are not realized?

Robert Jenkins: “We’re seeing some great examples of governments, of partners, of communities rallying around education, rallying around the schooling for their children and realizing this vision. But we are also seeing the opposite. And when we see the opposite, which is we are not proactively bridging children back into school, we’re not providing the services that they need as they return. We’re seeing increased dropout rates in many countries around the world. That will have lifelong implications for those children, but also for their communities in the countries in which they live.”

Related Articles

Inter-American Development Bank: “The Impacts of Remote Learning in Secondary Education: Evidence from Brazil during the Pandemic” — “The goal of this paper is to document the pedagogic impacts of the remote learning strategy used by an state department of education in Brazil during the pandemic. We found that dropout risk increased by 365% under remote learning.”

National Assessment of Progress in Education: “The Effect of COVID – 19 Pandemic On Teaching and Learning at Primary and Secondary Education levels in Uganda” — “Assuming similarity in the cohorts, results showed that the percentage of P 6 learners rated proficient in Literacy in English in 2021 dropped by 4.7 from that of 2018.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.