Students attending school in the current environment could conceivably have a 3 percent lower lifetime income caused by coronavirus-induced school closures. The most vulnerable are suffering the most under educational restrictions induced by COVID-19. Yet, there exist potential roads to action.

Almost one billion students are still out of school

Throughout the past months, schools and universities have closed around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the UNESCO Global Monitoring of School Closures caused by COVID-19 reports (see Figure 1), these closures affected around 1.6 billion learners, and 850 million of them are still out of school as of the end of September.

chart covid 19 students

Schools not only provide necessary learning environments but are also essential institutions when it comes to health, well-being, and socialization of our youth. While some systems were able to train teachers, roll out remote learning, and put in place student support services, others are struggling, constrained by lack of access to technology, expertise, and funding. The disparity can be found between countries as well as within them.

Addressing resulting inequities in a remote-learning environment is a complex challenge. Vulnerability comes in many forms: low-income students, immigrant students, ethnic or religious minorities, students with special needs, students in remote rural areas, and those in risky home situations all need tailored strategies, especially in developing countries.

Besides lost learning opportunities, one prominent example of direct socio-economic consequences is a lack of school meals, as these are often no longer provided when schools are closed. Manchester United’s star Marcus Rashford famously engaged in improving this situation in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, many children around the globe still do not have access to school meals and acceptable learning environments. This hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

Learning losses have severe economic effects

Education is at the root of innovation and drives sustainable economic growth. The coronavirus will lead to an overall decrease in the education of youngsters all around the world. Yet, it is not possible to fully estimate all the economic costs that come along with the education crisis.

Economics of education shows that roughly speaking, each additional year of schooling can increase lifetime income by 7.5 to 10 percent. In a recent report, the OECD estimates that students affected by the closures in grades 1 to 12 might expect a three percent lower lifetime income. This could result in a 1.5 percent lower GDP within this century.

If schools remain closed in many places in the world, this loss could increase further. These values fit the calculations of the World Bank, which assumes that the coronavirus crisis will lead to an average loss of schooling by 0.6 years, resulting in bringing down school completion from 7.9 years to 7.3 years on average. The loss for the global economy is accordingly estimated at $10 trillion.

As with the climate crisis, we are in the middle of a severe educational crisis. The potential costs of inaction are high: Economic losses up to several billion US dollars will most likely result in a noticeable decrease in living standards.   

The educational burden in the coronavirus crisis is unevenly distributed

Beyond the total and average costs of the emerging educational crisis, the academic burden induced by COVID-19 is unevenly distributed within and across states. One way to think about the effects of school closures on learning among the poorest and worst-off students is to look at learning curves (as usually drawn by the makers of national assessments).

These curves can be used to rank students based on their proficiency levels, and the standard deviation is one of the measures of inequality within school systems. The proportion of students to the left of the dotted red line are the so-called “learning poor” – the students below the minimum proficiency level who cannot read and understand a basic text by age 10 (see Figure 2). While this proportion might be higher in developing countries, the effects discussed here will be similar for the weakest students all around the globe.

chart covid 19 students

The first graph shows an average ability level of 500 (x-axis), and in this first scenario, we see a shift of the whole distribution to the left. This scenario depicted above is probably the most straightforward transformation, which is caused by a reduction in average learning levels across the distribution. Despite the best efforts of school systems to offer distance learning, studies show that variation in instructional time is associated with learning loss.

The second scenario shows a flattened curve due to the highly unequal effects of the crisis. In this scenario, children who are at the top will pull ahead, while students at the bottom will fall further behind. The total average ability level will slightly decrease. Even if the virus does not care whether you are rich or poor, the rich are better situated to mitigate its effects. Wealthier families are much more likely to be able to homeschool, have good internet connections, and can hire private tutors. Poorer families may not have the necessary digital devices or even access to the internet and often struggle to keep up with their children’s schoolwork.

Empirical results show that we will probably have to deal with scenario two. However, more research is needed to get a definite picture of the effects of school closures. No matter if we end up with scenario one or scenario two, the result is similar: the proportion of the ‘’learning poor’’ will dramatically increase.

Possible avenues to mitigate the effects of the crisis

A loss of educational opportunities can lead to a lost generation of learners. Without urgent action, a learning crisis could become a generational catastrophe. Education is not only a fundamental human right but also a driver of economic progress as well as the basis for just, equal, inclusive, and peaceful societies.

All stakeholders of the educational system now have to work together and tackle the crisis on three different fronts:

  • The re-opening of schools is one of the most important steps to ensure access to learning, especially for the most impoverished children. Many countries have done so already; however, coronavirus infections are rising in some of them. No one knows how the situation will develop over the coming months or if schools will stay open. So, strict measures to suppress the transmission of the virus and to control national or local outbreaks are needed to hasten re-openings. When re-opening schools, countries have to plan for an inclusive and safe re-opening. The voices of all stakeholders and the community should be heard, and strict guidelines of what to do if there is a corona case in school are necessary.
  • The global pandemic has also caused a recession with severe economic effects, and education spending is in danger worldwide. Countries are cutting down on their public spending, but education funding has to become a top priority. While a possible way forward is to address current inefficiencies in education spending, international coordination and support will also be needed. Organizations like the Global Partnership for Education have already granted millions. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has just released a letter to G20, the World Bank, and the IMF, regional development banks and national governments emphasizing the need for additional financing.
  • Now is also the time to build resilient education systems that not only ensure the learning of all students but are also much better prepared for any future crisis. By supporting the teaching profession and teacher readiness and investing in digital learning, countries can remove barriers to equitable education and place a special focus on marginalized groups. The crisis has also highlighted the need to strengthen data collection and monitor learning, providing another chance for countries to develop a more just education system.

Overall, the current coronavirus pandemic will have dramatic educational and economic effects. Pupils currently in school will very probably experience learning losses and have a lower lifetime income. If we do not take action now, these effects will intensify, and the most vulnerable will suffer the most.

However, every crisis also presents considerable opportunities. Taking the right actions now will allow countries to build a more resilient education system, equip schools with the necessary resources to support every single student, and break with outdated norms and structures.