1.6 billion students have been affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although schools have started to reopen in 2020 and 2021, too many have remained closed for too long. Even short disruptions in schooling can have long-lasting impacts on children’s learning and wellbeing.
The evidence is clear that there is no replacement for in-person learning and schools should reopen as soon as possible. This global school closure crisis has highlighted the need for resilient education systems with remote learning options that are accessible and effective for all learners when schools are forced to close.
Even before COVID-19, the world was experiencing a learning crisis with 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries unable to read a simple text by age 10. This learning poverty rate is expected to rise to 63% due to school closures. The effects for children in low- and middle-income countries will be more severe given low levels of learning prior to the pandemic, lack of access to technology for remote learning, and longer periods of school closures.
Harmonized Learning Outcomes* by number of closed school days (02/2020 - 08/2021)
Note: Countries which appear lower on the graph had lower pre-COVID-19 learning levels. Countries which appear farther to the right have had school closures for longer periods of time. The size of the circles represents the school-age population (from pre-primary to secondary) of a country.
*The Harmonized Learning Outcomes (HLO) is a database that enables comparisons of learning progress across 164 countries. The database combines results from seven different types of tests, which each cover between 10 and 72 countries. Scores were disaggregated by schooling level (primary or secondary), subject (maths, science and reading) and gender.
Globally, education systems were completely closed for an average of 125 days between February 2020 and August 2021. However, this figure rises to 232 days when partial school closures are included. Partial closures should not be discounted for their potential to widen existing learning disparities. Pre-primary education was the level least likely to be prioritized for reopening, despite data that show pre-primary students were least likely to have remote learning options and robust evidence that investments in pre-primary education yield long-lasting and massive returns for children, families and societies.
1. Increase investment in remote learning programmes to build resilience into education systems. Global recognition is needed for the importance of building resilient education systems and investments should be mobilized to match this great need. Producing accessible digital and media resources based on the curriculum together with robust delivery systems will allow quicker responses to education disruptions, and their use in ordinary times can enrich learning opportunities for children both in and out of school. These investments in remote learning systems must be matched with investments in the infrastructure and technology that enables their effective use. All forms of technology-enabled remote learning require electricity. However still, only 47% of the population has access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.
Access to electricity across regions
2. Address electricity, connectivity and data affordability challenges, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. When access to the necessary tools is achieved, the cost of connectivity is prohibitive for many students and teachers across the world. Governments should prioritize action on infrastructure needs while at the same time working to reduce the cost of data for students and teachers. These actions cannot be taken by ministries of education alone and should be coordinated between government agencies, the private sector and the multilateral system.
As governments continue to invest in infrastructure, education actors, including ministries of education, should develop remote learning modalities that leverage technology households currently have access to.
Access to technology
3. Leverage widespread access to mobile phones to make remote learning more interactive. Almost all countries reported using multiple modalities of remote learning to reach more children during school closures How these modalities interact with each other is of great importance. Combining mobile phone-based follow-up support with less interactive modalities, such as paper-based take-home materials and broadcast media, has been key to improving the take-up and effectiveness of remote learning, especially in areas with technology constraints.
4. Improve teacher and facilitator training and preparedness for remote learning. Throughout school closures, teachers and facilitators provided various types of support to families and students, ranging from checking in with families to teaching over the phone or through video-conferencing. Meaningful interactions between teachers and students are critical for successful remote learning.
5. Monitor implementation of remote learning solutions, from their use to their impact on learning to inform and improve delivery. More implementation and operational research are needed to improve the effectiveness of remote learning solutions. This includes measuring learning outcomes and monitoring both access to and use of devices, the production of relevant and engaging content, and the provision of training and support to teachers to integrate the use of technology for learning.
A balance needs to be struck between the interactivity of digital learning and the bandwidth and devices necessary for use. One size does not fit all students, and specific programmes need to be developed for children of different ages and varying digital skills. Developing digital learning modalities that can be used offline or in places with unreliable internet connectivity will allow them to be used more efficiently and equitably.
Broadcast Media (TV and Radio)
Broadcast media, such as TV and radio, was frequently used in countries as a way to reach those without internet connectivity. However, a lack of access to devices remains a barrier for learning via broadcast media. What’s more, learning via broadcast media poses a challenge for larger households with children of different ages and at different levels of education.
The delivery of broadcast media needs to be met with a plan for interaction and feedback, such as mobile phone-based check-ins with students and families. Priority should be given to ensuring that children from lower levels of primary and pre-primary are not excluded, and that adequate support is provided to caregivers, especially for those youngest learners.
Mobile phones are the most prevalent and equally distributed technology that can be harnessed for remote learning. Despite their widespread availability mobile phones have been less emphasized in remote learning delivery. Mobile phones can enable communication, lessons and psychosocial support for students and families and learning assessments. When used in conjunction with other forms of remote learning, mobile phones can be used to receive feedback, monitor learning progress, and increase interaction between educators, families, and learners.
Paper-based take-home packages
While paper-based take-home materials are the most accessible remote learning modality for low-income households, challenges in distribution and lack of interactivity remain. Support to students from caregivers, teachers and/or facilitators is critically important when using take-home paper-based materials.
Governments should leverage community actors and build on existing supply chains from other sectors, such as health and nutrition, during crises to deliver paper-based materials to families at scale. Take-home materials must be met with support from teachers and parents in children’s learning; protocols of communication between schools and families when schools are forced to shut should be developed, including, for example, establishing pick-up points and determining frequency of new material delivery. Regular communication channels between educators, families and learners would not only be useful to support learning and coordination but would allow end user feedback and monitoring of remote learning usefulness and quality.
Climate Change: Increasing the Need for Resilience
COVID-19 school closures exposed the fragility of education systems and the need for accessible and effective remote learning modalities that can be relied on when schools are forced shut in order to limit learning loss.
Over 1.3 billion school-age children live in countries at high risk of climate change related disasters, making school closures and learning loss the new norm unless urgent action is taken. These countries most at risk are also those with the lowest levels of learning, with 60 per cent of children living in learning poverty. These are the children most in need of sustainable solutions for learning and resilient education systems that can provide learning continuity in the face of any crisis, current or future.
This report and research was developed and drafted by UNICEFs Education Section and the UNICEF Office of Research- Innocenti. UNICEF's Data and Analytics team provided support to the data analysis and valuable inputs throughout the process. Support and guidance were also provided by colleagues in each of the UNICEF's seven regional offices, East Asia and Pacific, Eastern and Southern Africa, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and West and Central Africa.