School-age minors have suffered one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most dramatic disruptions. In March 2020, schools closed their doors across the globe, and more than 1.5 billion students worldwide ceased to learn in physical classrooms—or, in many cases, in any organized fashion at all. By the fall of 2020, and then increasingly over the course of the spring, school systems in some countries began to experiment with partial and hybrid reopenings that allowed children to return to their campuses for a few hours or days each week. But not every school system has managed this much. The effects of school closures will not be easy to dispel—and they are particularly devastating for children in low- and middle-income countries.

The loss of the last year and a half of education could seriously exacerbate global inequality. Even before the pandemic, the World Bank estimated that 53 percent of ten-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries did not read well enough to comprehend basic texts or were simply out of school. As a result of COVID-19 school closures, that figure is expected to jump by ten percentage points in one year. Children who have been unable to attend school or attain basic literacy skills will have reduced earnings prospects as a result—and consequentially, their countries’ economic growth will slow, slipping even further behind that of high-income countries. Policymakers in low- and middle-income countries (and in high-income countries with low-income communities) must try to reverse the damage by safely reopening schools and investing in education.

MANY CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND

Research consistently shows that students who receive high-quality schooling earn more than their counterparts who do not and that their countries concomitantly achieve higher rates of economic growth. Two countries, the Dominican Republic and Singapore, starkly illustrate the correlation. Both are island nations, with relatively small populations of 10.7 million and 5.7 million, respectively. In 2018, both participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures student learning in math, reading, and science. Singaporean students were among the top performers, whereas students from the Dominican Republic scored at the very bottom of the list of more than 80 participating education systems. According to the World Bank, the approximate annual income per capita in Singapore is $65,200, whereas in the Dominican Republic it is just $8,200.

The pandemic has accentuated this divide, not least because of the disparity in the two countries’ responses. Singapore has kept the pandemic under control, with just 31 deaths in total, and reopened its public schools in June 2020. The Dominican Republic fought the pandemic better than many middle-income countries, with just 4,000 deaths since the onset of the crisis. But the country has kept its schools closed, announcing a gradual reopening only in April 2021.  Thus, while Singaporean students lost only a few months of in-person instruction because of COVID-19, when all is said and done, students from the Dominican Republic will have lost more than a full year of in-person learning.

Many low- and middle-income countries (and notably some high-income countries, such as the United States) have followed the path of the Dominican Republic rather than that of Singapore. According to a recent report by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF, by September 2020, almost 90 percent of high-income countries had fully or partially reopened schools (though most were combining in-person with remote learning), whereas only 67 percent of low-income and 56 percent of lower-middle-income countries had done so.

The loss of the last year and a half of education could seriously exacerbate global inequality.

Time in the classroom matters. Researchers have found that on average, students learn less through online instruction than they do in person. Moreover, students who are already performing below grade level are the most likely to lose ground when instruction moves online. This category of student includes the majority of those in the Dominican Republic—as well as those elsewhere who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may not have home environments conducive to learning.

With schools staying closed for longer in low- and middle-income countries than in wealthy countries, and with disadvantaged and struggling students falling the furthest behind during remote learning, the learning losses of the pandemic are likely to be heavily concentrated among the world’s poor. Research shows that countries with highly skilled populations tend to grow faster than countries with populations with fewer skills. Now, students in low- and middle-income countries are struggling to learn new skills as quickly as their counterparts in high-income countries, and the consequences for global inequality could be profound.

In a recent paper, my co-authors and I estimate that COVID-19 school closures will lead global income to drop by $15 trillion, equivalent to a 0.8 percent reduction in the annual rate of global economic growth. But these income losses will not be distributed equally. We estimate that learning losses due to school closures will cost low-income countries 62 percent of GDP but middle- and high-income countries just 22 and nine percent, respectively. These losses are devastating for low-income countries, given their already low levels of earnings, high rates of poverty, and slow forecasted rates of recovery after COVID-19.

SAVING SCHOOLS

To mitigate the impact of COVID-19 school closures on global inequality, policymakers must prioritize reopening public schools for in-person instruction. Doing so will require providing the financial resources and additional support for educators and students to safely attend school. That will mean reducing class sizes, investing in better ventilation systems, ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, and closely monitoring rates of infection to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Leaving schools in low- and middle-income countries to fend for themselves will exacerbate poverty and inequality. Communities, governments, and international organizations must invest in reopening and improving public schools, especially those serving the poorest and most marginalized students. Schools are among the largest sources of employment and economic activity in many countries, and getting them operating again can help reactivate economies in more ways than one.

Making up lost ground will require more than resources. Teachers will need to assess their students’ deficits and help them catch up in basic skills, such as reading and math. None of this will be easy, and it will require the active support and engagement of policymakers, parents, and entire communities. But failing to invest in today’s children in low- and middle-income countries will cost far more, for far longer.

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  • EMILIANA VEGAS is Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.

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