What covid-19 school shutdowns have cost the world’s children

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‘Catastrophic disruption’: What covid-19 school shutdowns have cost the world’s children

Ask Aradhana, a bright and energetic 9-year-old from India, about what she’s been learning lately, and the child hides behind her mother in embarrassment.

“She only remembers some things, most of it she’s forgotten,” her mother, Vibha Singh, told Grid, standing with her child in her one-room home in a slum in the Indian capital Delhi. The city’s schools have been shuttered for more than 600 days, in what amounts to one of the world’s longest covid-induced school closures.


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“I didn’t go to school,” Singh said. “My husband didn’t go to school. We can’t really do much but wait until she can go back to class.”

Aradhana’s parents — her mother works as a housemaid; her father, after losing regular work as a driver because of the pandemic, does temporary shifts on construction sites — cannot afford a laptop. The school’s teachers have tried to make things work with mobile phones, but the child, her mother said, is easily distracted at home. “It is not the same,” she told Grid.

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It has not been the same, in India and all over the world, for hundreds of millions of children. At current count, some 616 million children remain affected by full or partial school closures as the pandemic continues to upend life in rich and poor countries alike. Since the early outbreaks of covid-19 — the first school shutdowns were in China more than two years ago — at least 1.6 billion children have, at one point or another, been forced to leave their classrooms and study at home. Grid looked at the issue beyond U.S. borders and found that for some, the transition has been relatively smooth; for others, particularly in the developing world, the losses — in basic education, mental health, school-supplied meals and more — have been profound.

“It has transformed a lot for children and for us as well,” Seema Devi, a primary teacher at a school for underprivileged children in Delhi, told Grid. “A generation of schoolchildren have been affected. Sometimes it is almost hard to believe. But that is what has happened.”

The basics: Falling behind

The fundamental losses start with the learning itself.

Lost classroom hours have left 70 percent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries unable to read or comprehend simple texts, up from around half before the pandemic, according to UNICEF. All told, more than 1 billion children in those countries were affected by school closures.

Primary school children in Ethiopia have picked up only 30 to 40 percent of the math skills they should have learned by now. In the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, surveys show the risk of children dropping out of school for good has more than tripled; statewide examinations last year showed across-the-board declines in learning.

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Even children in better-resourced parts of the world have seen declines, albeit smaller ones. Data from Belgium, Italy and other European countries tells the same broad story: Children have fallen behind — and in many cases faced additional challenges such as higher levels of stress and anxiety. Even limited closures have had a far-reaching impact: In the Netherlands, an eight-week school shutdown resulted in learning losses equivalent to 20 percent of an entire school year.

As Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s Europe director, warned last summer: “The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history.”

Mental health

Teachers and parents alike say the “disruption” extends well beyond empty classrooms and deficits in learning.

“You think you are just closing the school,” Devi, the teacher from Delhi, told Grid. “That is only the start.”

Devi said she has kept in close contact with several of her students since the onset of the pandemic. She said many have shown signs of stress. “They are more anxious and less attentive,” she explained.

Those words were echoed by Munmun Nahar, a schoolteacher and mother of two school-aged children in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, who told the Anadolu news agency that she could “feel changes” in the behavior of her children. “They seem to be under stress as they have not been able to sleep well and have woken up with anxiety intermittently during the night,” she said.

That stress is a global byproduct of the classroom closures. A U.N. report cited increased cases of anxiety and depression, particularly among already vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Mental health challenges “have likely doubled” because of the pandemic, the report found. The projection mirrors a recent analysis of data from 11 countries, which showed links between the first wave of school closures and rising levels of mental health symptoms such as anxiety and distress among children and adolescents.

“Children are clearly expressing that online learning is not as effective, and it is also creating mental stress,” Almeer Ahsan Asif, from the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, which runs extracurricular skill development classes for school-age children in the country, told Grid.

The next meal

For many children and their families, the fallout extends to their physical health.

Take India again, long home to the world’s highest number of undernourished children and the largest school feeding program anywhere. Before the pandemic, some 100 million children received daily cooked meals under the program. Its impact is well documented, with studies showing how the initiative, which was introduced in the mid-’90s, has boosted the health of children and helped drive up levels of school attendance and learning across the country.


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Vijender Gupta, a teacher in a remote town in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, told Grid that for most of his students, the school meals have been critical. “It helped take pressure off parents. One meal was paid for. It was part of the budget,” he said. “Covid made things hard for everybody. When you stop providing meals to children, you are making things harder at home. It is an economic cost as well.”

India is not alone — school feeding programs benefit millions of children around the world, from Nigeria and South Africa to Brazil and Colombia.

But as schools closed in 2020, so did access to these critical meals. Despite numerous local efforts around the world to keep the programs going, UNICEF estimates the number of school meals missed as a result of covid-inspired school shutdowns — for 2020 alone — at 39 billion. At the mid-2020 peak of school shutdowns, as many as 370 million children were losing at least one meal a day.

In Ethiopia, a country facing acute food shortages, some 26 million children could not attend school during the first covid closures. For many, that meant being cut off from a critical source of food. One teacher, giving an account of the impact in a study published last year, spoke of the burden such closures put on parents who were already facing covid-related economic pressures: “One mother called me and told me that she has four children all of whom were on the school feeding program. She makes her livelihood by washing clothes. But now all the four kids are staying at home.” The mother’s situation was made worse when people stopped sending their clothes out to be washed and she lost her principal source of income. “She is in a very tough situation,” the teacher said.

Another teacher laid out the consequences more starkly: “Believe it or not students are begging on the street because they don’t have anything to eat,” she said. “I ran into my old friend last week and she said, ‘your students are on the street begging’ which is a very sad thing for a teacher to hear.”

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Gupta, the teacher from the Indian state of Bihar, said he, too, has heard stories of students going hungry. “Remember that the pandemic was hard for those who were already poor and struggling to make ends meet,” he told Grid. “One or two more mouths to feed when you have lost your job or if you are earning less — it is not possible for many people. They do not have the resources.”

The technology factor: Haves and have-nots

Resources and technology have been critical in dealing with the learning gap. Globally, responses to the tech challenge have varied as much as overall responses to the pandemic itself.

A standout good-news case can be found in South Korea, where 96 percent of the population was already online when the pandemic hit, and low-income families received funds to access Wi-Fi. As schools closed in 2020, a new division was set up within the Education Ministry to help with the shift to virtual learning.

So South Korean children began with a head start and then got an additional boost. Digital devices were provided for those who needed them; others in remote areas were sent physical learning materials. Some educational programs were also available on TV, covering subjects such as Korean and math.

The assistance reached beyond the students themselves. Teachers could call a help line to deal with technical difficulties with online classes; they could also watch training videos on an Education Ministry-backed TV channel.

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In Vietnam, while roughly 70 percent of the population was online as of January 2020, more than 90 percent of teachers in remote provinces said that before the pandemic, they had never used modern technologies in their classrooms. For already marginalized groups — girls, children from certain ethnic minorities and those living in far-off areas with limited tech infrastructure — covid-related school closures made learning an uphill struggle.

A Vietnamese teenager spoke for many when he told UNICEF surveyors in 2020 that he couldn’t keep up with his classes because of spotty connectivity in his small community outside Hanoi.

“During class, the internet could disconnect due to a bad connection,” he said. “Since we did not have an internet connection at home, I had to use our neighbour’s Wi-Fi. Sometimes during Zoom classes, the electricity in my mountainous area went out because of the rain, so I couldn’t continue to study.”

Devi, the teacher from Delhi, described similar challenges for her students. “You need a lot of things to do this, including the right device and help at home,” she told Grid. “Not every child has that.”

A wide-ranging survey in India, based on data from five Indian states and covering more than 80,000 school-aged children, showed that more than 60 percent could not access online learning. According to figures from the nonprofit Azim Premji Foundation, the reasons varied — from a lack of devices to difficulties using learning apps — but the result was the same: When the schools closed, learning was all too often shut down.

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The plight of parents has also changed the equation for their children. In Dhaka, pandemic-related job losses drove many families back to remote villages — and their children out of online range. Asif, from the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, said that his organization provided free mobile data packs to allow them to continue learning remotely. “It wasn’t enough,” he told Grid. “We have examples of students going up to the roofs of their homes because the network [in their village] was so bad.”

The long-term impact

As schools reopen and educators tally these costs, they also warn of the longer-term consequences of all those lost classroom hours. Education and child welfare experts worry that in many parts of the world, the reopening of classrooms won’t mean a return to school — that too many children are likely to drop out, magnifying an already urgent crisis. Before the pandemic, more than 250 million primary- and secondary-school-aged children were already outside the classroom.

In Delhi, Aradhana’s parents don’t know whether their daughter will return to school. The reason: They don’t know how long they can survive in the Indian capital. “A lot of people have already returned to their villages. We haven’t, yet,” Singh, Aradhana’s mother, told Grid. “But we don’t know what will happen next week or next month.”

She’s referring to fears of another bad turn in the pandemic. The omicron variant’s arrival prompted city authorities to introduce curbs on activity, including on construction sites — hitting the incomes of daily wage workers like Aradhana’s father.

“If we have to leave, I don’t know what’ll happen to her schooling,” Singh said.

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Around the world, there is already evidence of children dropping out — or thinking of doing so. UNICEF reports that in Brazil, 1 in 10 children aged 10 to 15 weren’t planning to return to school. In South Africa, as many as half a million children are estimated to have dropped out between March 2020 and July 2021. And in Italy, already a laggard in Europe in terms of school attendance, more than 1 in 4 students aged 14 to 18 said they had seen at least one of their classmates drop out of classes, according to one survey published last year.

No country has seen more classroom hours lost than Uganda, which reopened its schools in January after the world’s longest school shutdown — almost two years for some grades. While millions of children are now back in their schools, local authorities told Reuters that as many as a third of schoolchildren weren’t likely to return.

“I am here working but I know my friends right now are going back to school or preparing to,” said Fridah Namuganza, an 18-year-old from a town northeast of the Ugandan capital Kampala. Before the pandemic, she dreamed of being a doctor, but after covid played havoc with her family finances, she was forced to find work. “That thought sucks the energy out of me. I feel some despair and anger,” she said.

In Delhi, as in many parts of the world, there is growing pressure for schools to reopen. Local politicians have stepped up calls for federal officials to ease school restrictions, as have parents’ groups. Devi, the teacher, shares a mix of hope — for the day when her classroom is full and vibrant again — and despair at the damage already done. “I don’t know when the virus will go away, but it will go away,” she said. “This problem will not go away as quickly.”

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

TOPICS

COVID-19