Pandemic-led repeated school closures responsible for learning loss in S. Asia: Unicef research

By Neetu Chandra Sharma
Despite significant efforts by governments, low connectivity and access to digital devices have severely hampered efforts to roll out remote learning. (Photo: ANI)

NEW DELHI: Repeated school closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have led to alarming levels of inequities in learning opportunities for children in South Asia, despite significant efforts by governments and partners to expand remote learning, according to UNICEF research conducted in India, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

School closures in the region have interrupted the learning of 434 million children. According to UNICEF’s research, a substantial proportion of students and their parents reported that students learnt significantly less compared to pre-pandemic levels. In India, 80% of children aged 14-18 years reported lower levels of learning than when physically at school.

"School closures in South Asia have forced hundreds of millions of children and their teachers to transition to remote learning in a region with low connectivity and device affordability," said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF regional director for South Asia. “Even when a family has access to technology, children are not always able to access it. As a result, children have suffered enormous setbacks in their learning journey."

Despite significant efforts by governments, low connectivity and access to digital devices have severely hampered efforts to roll out remote learning. In India, 42% of children of 6-13 years reported not using any type of remote learning during school closures. In Pakistan, 23% of younger children didn’t have access to any device that could support remote learning. Poor and disadvantaged households have been the worst hit, with many families struggling to afford even a single device.

Even when devices are available, UNICEF’s research indicates that they are often under-utilised and that children’s access to them is often limited. 

The research found that student-teacher engagement, when regular and reciprocal, is a strong predictor of success in children’s learning, especially for younger students. However, surveys found that most students had little or no contact with their teachers after schools closed.

Parallelly, investing in teachers will ensure that teachers and schools can adapt to all situations. The more teachers are trained, equipped and supported on distance and blended learning, the better they will be able to reach all their students, added George Laryea- Adjei. “This is a critical investment we need to make for children as the region gears up for future waves of covid-19. We need to build systems which can weather any storm and keep children learning, no matter the circumstances."

To ensure that children keep learning, UNICEF called upon governments to prioritise safe reopening of all schools, while also ensuring that children are able to pursue quality learning remotely, if necessary, teachers to assess children’s learning levels and ensure catch up is enabled through governments to prioritize the vaccination of teachers to support the safe reopening of schools.

The UNICEF also asked governments to train and equip teachers to better reach children and adolescents with limited or no access to technology through a combination of modalities including mobile devices, TV, radio, and printed materials.

If added that school administrators and education officials should provide more guidance to teachers to engage with their students and use different types of learning techniques.

Even before the pandemic, almost 60% of children in South Asia were unable to read and understand a simple text by the time they are 10 years old. In addition, 12.5 million children at the primary level and 16.5 million children at the lower secondary level were out of school.


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