Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Asia’s post-COVID education catch-up

- By Albert Park Albert Park is Chief Economist at the Asian Developmen­t Bank.

Across Asia and the Pacific, students and parents are breathing a sigh of relief as schools reopen and in-person classes gradually resume. But now comes the reckoning: Failure to make up for students’ significan­t education losses during the COVID-19 pandemic could diminish their lifetime earning potential and substantia­lly damage economic equity throughout the region.

With the new academic year in many Asian countries starting in a matter of months, government­s must urgently mitigate these learning shortfalls by strengthen­ing schools and social safety nets. While many schools offered remote learning during the pandemic, this was a poor substitute for in-person instructio­n – especially in developing countries. According to Asian Developmen­t Bank estimates, students in developing Asia lost over half a year of learning on average.

The costs of doing nothing are steep. If not remedied, students’ lost education will reduce their productivi­ty throughout their working lives and translate into estimated aggregate forgone earnings of $3.2 trillion in constant 2020 dollars, equivalent to 13% of developing Asia’s GDP in 2020.

Learning losses during the pandemic were not borne evenly, which makes reversing them even more challengin­g. Girls and students from poorer households struggle disproport­ionately with remote learning, owing to less access to computers, the internet, a parent or other adult who can help them, and a conducive home study environmen­t. Moreover, they are often taken out of school in response to economic hardship – which many Asian households experience­d during the pandemic.

As a result, estimated learning losses for students from the poorest 20% of households in developing Asia are one-third higher than for students from the richest 20%, correspond­ing to a projected 47% greater loss of lifetime earnings. Girls are expected to lose 28% more than boys in future earnings.

To shrink these disparitie­s and reduce overall losses, the region’s government­s need to improve the quality of instructio­n, make up for learning gaps, and support disadvanta­ged students. As a first step, ensuring that inperson classes can resume safely, thereby preventing further loss of learning, is vital. This may mean expanding classrooms to enable adequate social distancing, ensuring proper ventilatio­n, installing handwashin­g and sanitation stations, scheduling meals to avoid crowding, and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. Schools that mainly serve low-income students are in greater need of investment to make these improvemen­ts and should receive more financial support.

A second step is to use targeted instructio­n and regular tracking of student progress to offset lost learning. In Bangladesh, for example, individual mentoring during the pandemic improved numeracy by 33% and English literacy by 52% relative to students who didn’t receive it, and the gains were greater for poor, lagging students with lesseducat­ed parents.

Even before COVID-19, randomized controlled trials in India, Ghana, and Kenya showed that educationa­l programs matching instructio­n to individual students’ learning levels (instead of using a uniform, fixed syllabus) significan­tly improved test scores. Technology such as MindSpark software can customize educationa­l content for students and deliver highly effective, individual­ized teaching. Experience during the pandemic also showed that mobilizing families, communitie­s, and volunteers to support education outcomes can speed children’s learning.

Improving poorer students’ learning opportunit­ies and hence life chances also requires narrowing the digital divide. The pandemic has made digital infrastruc­ture even more central to education and communicat­ion, and disadvanta­ged students are more likely to prosper if they have adequate access to the hardware, software, and connectivi­ty they need.

Digital literacy campaigns can target girls, and government­s can work with internet service providers to offer more affordable access, including by providing subsidies. In Sri Lanka, the government struck a deal with ISPs to give students free access to university-based learningma­nagement systems while schools were closed, increasing higher-education students’ participat­ion rate in online learning to more than 90%.

Strengthen­ing social safety nets to encourage school attendance is critical, too. School-feeding programs and cash transfers for education expenses can reduce dropout rates among disadvanta­ged students and encourage those who have stopped attending school to re-enroll. Before the pandemic, a cash-transfer program earmarked for girls’ education in Bangladesh increased participan­ts’ schooling by more than three years on average.

Finally, Asian policymake­rs must build flexibilit­y and emergency resilience into education systems. Disruption­s will occur again. Countries must have the capacity to shift to remote schooling on short notice, and everyone – teachers, parents, students, and administra­tors – needs to be prepared. Innovation­s in education sparked by pandemic-induced school closures, like phone mentoring of students, can be blended into the regular curriculum to prepare students for the next break in physical classes.

The choice is clear. We can let a generation of Asian students fall further behind and pay the price for lost learning, or we can make sure that all students receive the education they need. Helping today’s young people realize their potential is the surest path to a more equitable and prosperous region for everyone.

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