Covid-19 school closures to cost $17tn to this generation of children

The pandemic has also exacerbated inequities in the education system, a World Bank-led report finds

Filipino children attend a flag-raising ceremony before the start of classes at Longos Elementary School in the city of Alaminos, Pangasinan province. Getty

The current generation of pupils risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, equivalent to nearly 14 per cent of today’s global economy, because of the Covid-related school closures, a new report by World Bank, Unesco and Unicef has said.

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The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable
Jaime Saavedra, World Bank’s global director for education

The latest forecast in the state of the global education crisis: a path to recovery report exceeds the $10tn estimates released last year.

The Covid-19 crisis brought education systems across the world to a halt, Jaime Saavedra, World Bank’s global director for education, said.

“Now, 21 months later, schools remain closed for millions of children and others may never return to school," Mr Saavedra said.

“The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable … the potential increase of learning poverty might have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families and the world’s economies.”

The World Bank and the Unesco Institute for Statistics jointly constructed the concept of learning poverty that means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.

Educational institutions across the world have faced a tougher operating environment amid pandemic-driven headwinds that also tipped the global economy into its worst recession since the 1930s.

Jessica Matthews, 10, does her school work online in the living room of her family home in Auckland. Getty

The pandemic cost Middle East and North Africa (Mena) economies an estimated $227 billion last year, while a UN forecast put Mena job losses at 1.7 million in 2020.

The pandemic has also exacerbated inequities in the education system, the new report found.

In low and middle-income countries, the share of children living in learning poverty – 53 per cent before the pandemic – could reach 70 per cent because of the prolonged school closures and the ineffectiveness of remote learning, the report found.

More than 200 million learners live in low and lower middle-income countries that are unprepared to introduce remote learning during emergency school closures.

Children from low-income households, pupils with disabilities and girls were less likely to access remote learning than their peers. This was due to the “lack of accessible technologies and the availability of electricity, connectivity and devices, as well as discrimination and gender norms”, the report said.

The pandemic disrupted education for 1.6 billion children at its peak and worsened the gender divide, Robert Jenkins, Unicef’s director of education, said.

“In some countries, we are seeing greater learning losses among girls and an increase in their risk of facing child labour, gender-based violence, early marriage … to stem the scars on this generation, we must reopen schools and keep them open, target outreach to return learners to school and accelerate learning recovery," Mr Jenkins said.

The report revealed less than 3 per cent of governments’ stimulus packages had been allocated to education thus far. It said much more funding would be needed for immediate learning recovery.

Reopening schools must remain a top and urgent priority globally to stem and reverse learning losses, the report recommended.

Countries should put in place learning recovery programmes that cover three key lines of action to recover learning – consolidating the curriculum, extending instructional time and improving the efficiency of learning.

“We are committed to supporting governments more generally with their Covid response through the mission recovery plan launched earlier this year,” said Stefania Giannini, Unesco’s assistant director general for education.

With government leadership and support from the international community, there is a great deal that can be done to make systems more equitable, efficient and resilient, she said.

A young Filipino boy cries during the first day of classes at Longos Elementary School last month in the city of Alaminos. Getty

“But to do that, we must make children and youth a real priority amid all the other demands of the pandemic response. Their future – and our collective future – depends on it."

Updated: December 9th 2021, 6:30 PM