The global health emergency has turned into crises in many other fields, particularly in education. Staggering reports by the World Bank and the OECD project serious economic losses in terms of the lost learning due to the pandemic in the coming years. On the other hand, the crisis has shown the positive response of educators and students trying to find innovative and creative ways to overcome difficulties. As we move forward, we are offered the chance to reflect on the inequalities and inneficiencies of education to plan for a better future.
More than a year has passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Yet here we are, starting another period of tightening restrictions and online learning. Although the advent of vaccines brought new hope, the pandemic has become much more than just a health emergency. Trickle down effects flooded all aspects of our lives. Students were particularly hit, as education was put on hold across the entire globe. A year later, we look at what have been the short-term responses and what will be the long-term effects on education.
The pandemic particularly affected students as governments all over the world shut down schools. A report published by UNESCO on national responses to COVID-19 estimated that at the beginning of April 2020, at its peak, 91% of students globally were out of school. This dramatic number together with an average of between 40 and 55 lost school days paints a troublesome picture both for the present and for the future. Missed school did not only mean lost learning during lockdowns, it also poses a roadblock to future education. As they return to a new normal, teachers are confronted with initiating new curricula with students that were not taught previous material. Of even greater concern is the fact that students who were out of school for a long time are less likely to return to school. Coupled with the disillusionment and frustration of falling behind, this paints a gloomy picture for educators in the coming years.
As in many other areas, the pandemic brought to the spotlight the inequalities embedded within educational systems. The report by UNESCO estimated that low-income countries lost anywhere from two to three times as many school days as high-income countries. Due to technological difficulties and lack of funding, students in low-income countries were also 8 times less likely to be monitored during their education progress, which further complicates a proper assessment moving forward.
On the other hand, the global pandemic showed the resilience of teachers, educators, and students. To battle adverse conditions and underfunded school budgets, educators came up with innovative ways to reach and engage their students. In high-income countries learning primarily moved to online platforms. In lower income countries however, unreliable, or unavailable internet connection made this option unviable. Governments adopted less conventional methods such as broadcasting lessons through national TV networks or through the public radio. Some countries even used newspapers to widely distribute written material such as test and quizzes to students. Other responses involved the distribution of online school kits with tablets and solar powered batteries. While all these efforts showed good intentions, it remains to see how effective they have been.
Bocconi University also responded proactively to fill some of the gaps in its own context. Its Tutoring Online Project in partnership with Harvard University pairs up students from universities in Italy with students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Italian middle schools. It offers one-on-one support throughout the ongoing schoolyear on a variety of subjects to the students who need it most. Notwithstanding all these efforts to level the playing field, the pandemic showed the inner fragility of modern society. Studies by the World Bank that quantify the economic damage of the pandemic in terms of lost education estimate that school shutdowns over a five-month period could cost up to $10 trillion in present value globally. However, the OECD estimates that losses to individuals over a lifetime could be as high as 2.6% of earnings for each third of a year lost.
As we eagerly look towards an end to this pandemic, we must remember that a vaccine will not be a panacea and that many issues will outlive the health crises. The hardships of this year acted as a magnifying glass to systemic inequalities in global education systems and, as we consider moving forward, there is a chance to plan for a more equitable future.