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Schools closed in the pandemic left a lasting gap

Ever since the covid forced to stop classes, teachers, families and education specialists predicted that the educational stop would have important consequences in the short and long term. After back to school, several international reports seem to confirm the worst omens, and recommend recovery measures.

For example, the World Bank published several studies compiling data from evaluations carried out in countries of the five continents. Based on this information, as well as other data collected by Unicef ​​regarding the duration of school closures in each region, the McKinsey consultancy also produced its own report. Specialists from different institutions, such as Harvard or the Brookings Institution, were also added to the analysis of the issue.

Almost a school year late

Although some data vary slightly from one study to another, the reality drawn by these reports is quite coincident… and negative. According to the World Bank, at the height of the pandemic, school closures affected 1.6 billion children, most of them in low- and middle-income countries. On average, schools completely closed their doors during 180 school days, to which others 103 of partial closures.

Nevertheless, the duration of closure was very different in each region. Of the 121 weeks ranging from February to 2014 (when they started closing schools) to January 2022 (date when many countries had returned to near-normality), in Europe, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa if he had taught fully face-to-face classes for 45 weeks, and just under 40 in East Asia and North America, but just five weeks in South Asia and Latin America, the two regions where restrictions ended most late (the Philippines have just resumed face-to-face education after more than two years).

Logically, these were the areas where the greatest educational loss was accumulated. Specifically, according to McKinsey’s calculations, about months of instruction – that is, , one academic year and two months – against only 3.5 months in Europe and Central Asia (see graph).

Even so, there is no exact correlation between educational deterioration and duration of school closures, because there are other factors to take into account: for example, the technological means available in each educational system, which have allowed some countries to offer quality remote education and others not. Thus, even though schools in sub-Saharan Africa remained open longer than in the United States, the loss was greater.

middle-income countries, such as India, Mexico or the Philippines, were the most punished by the stop

On the other hand, the general educational deterioration was measured by comparing the results of generations prior to Covid-19 in these same countries. Therefore, regions with the worst previous income had less to lose. This explains why, according to Mckinsey’s report, the worst countries in the pandemic were those with average income and educational level: there, grades could get significantly worse, and the technical means for education online were much poorer. If you add to this the very long duration of school closures (for example, in India, Mexico or the aforementioned Philippines), the result could not be different.

Basic indicators

The negative effect of the pandemic on education is especially clear in some basic performance indicators, such as absenteeism, school failure or fundamental skills.

How much to the first, a US-centered study points out that, although the absenteeism rate has fallen slightly from the height of the pandemic, it remains much higher than before the interruption of classes. For example, in California it almost doubled. At the national level, it is estimated that between 1.7 and 3.3 million students in the last four secondary courses could leave school prematurely as a result of the educational stop.

The situation is even worse. in low-income countries. In Uganda, an estimated one-third of all students are at risk of not returning to school. These predictions are based on what happened with the Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2021 , which significantly increased the dropout rate, especially among girls and in the poorest communities.

The percentage of tardy students in reading grew all over the world, and especially where the stop was longer

Another basic indicator that shows the effect of the pandemic is the so-called “educational poverty “, which the World Bank defines as the inability to read and understand simple texts well at age ten. It was estimated that its incidence would increase ten percentage points worldwide because of school closures, until reaching 63 % from the students. However, growth was much higher in countries with longer-lasting closures. For example, some countries in Latin America and South Asia exceeded 20 percentage points, until affecting 45% of students. In absolute terms, sub-Saharan Africa continues to top the list, with a rate of more than 90%, but the pandemic had a lower relative incidence.

On the other hand, the interruption of classes also affected other factors related to the social, emotional and health well-being of students. Specifically, some studies point to an increase in violence against minors, in cases of anxiety or in teenage pregnancies. The obesity rate also increased, at the same time that millions of boys and girls stopped receiving free lunch in school cafeterias: at the peak of the pandemic it is estimated that this affected 370 million, a figure that was reduced to 180 million in October of 2021.

Unequal effect by subject, sex and economic level

In addition to reading ability, also Mathematics suffered a lot with the educational stop. In fact, according to most national measurements, the deterioration in this area was even greater. Experts explain that this type of content requires more of the teacher to settle in (which is why mid-year vacations are often especially detrimental to these skills).

Reports also point to a greater effect. of the interruption of classes in students of the first primary courses than in the others. Several reasons are mentioned: they have a smaller amount of luggage that serves as a “reserve”; they need more support from teachers, so virtual teaching is less effective; moreover, they learn more per year than the older ones, so the relative loss with school closure is also greater.

On the other hand, data from different studies indicate that the negative effect for the pandemic was most felt among girls, especially in poor and middle-income countries. This may be due, on the one hand, to cultural factors (less attention to female education), but it may also be related to the special incidence of closures on mathematical skills, in which female students tend to have worse results than their peers.

The closing of classes increased the educational gap by socioeconomic level, even in countries with favorable conditions

Something that all studies point out is that, within each country, lower-income students and racial minorities – often related factors – have had a stronger educational impact. The lower availability of technological means to follow remote education, the lower training capital of parents, the impossibility of paying private teachers and the worse school performance before the interruption of classes explain that the educational gap has increased significantly with the pandemic. In any case, even in a country with favorable conditions such as the Netherlands (a society that is not very unequal, with a shorter-than-average educational interruption and good equipment for teaching online), inequality has increased.

Once back to school, recovery of lost learning is also uneven. According to a McKinsey report on this topic, US students enrolled in schools with a majority of black students are still five months behind in reading and math, compared to previous generations at these same centers; on the other hand, those who attend mostly white schools are currently only two months late.

The same can be said of school absenteeism and socioeconomic status: while the rate has almost returned to pre-school levels. -pandemics among rich students, among the poorest there is only recovery.

What can be done

Faced with the so gloomy panorama left by the pandemic in the classroom, education experts recommend, first of all, an exhaustive and early diagnosis of accumulated learning deficiencies, especially in essential skills: reading and mathematics. Some educational systems are reinforcing the workload of these subjects, or designing reinforcement programs for the most backward ones.

Small group tutoring, especially the so-called “high intensity” (a good number of hours of reinforcement in a short time and with a very close follow-up of each student), proved to be a very effective tool in the recovery of “lost” students, and especially in the first courses of primary. An article published in Brookings Institution recommends making them the priority measure to fight the inequalities generated by interruption, in addition to reducing the size of classes or an increase in the academic year.

Other proposals call for harnessing the knowledge of educational technologies generated during closure (for example, with more detailed databases to track student progress, or software useful for creating and evaluating content), or investing more money in mental health within school centers.

©2022 Acpress. Published with permission. Original in Spanish.
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