Inclusive Education Needed as Equity Disparities Increase

The use of technology is becoming a hallmark of education services in the inter and post COVID era, though they offer fewer opportunities for engagement between students and teachers. Those who can have also introduced or expanded supplemental learning opportunities, but uneven trends in recovery efforts, coupled with continued pandemic disruptions, are having uneven impact.

Landscape of learning modalities as of August 2021
A pie chart showing the distribution of learning modalities  as of August 2021
Data collected by the Global Education Recovery Tracker as of 08/31/2021
About 60% of the world’s education systems traditionally start their school year in August and September. With COVID cases on the rise in many locations, the 2021-22 academic year seems to be starting in-person, virtual, or hybrid – a sign of the new normal in education service delivery. The most recent data from the World Bank-UNICEF-Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker (GERT) shows that of those countries where schools are open, only half (51%) have returned to in-person instruction exclusively while the others are using remote (13%), hybrid (18%), or mixed approaches (16%). (the GERT defines “mixed” as a combination of in-person, hybrid, remote, and/or schools-closed due to COVID-19; “hybrid” is defined as combining remote learning and in-person instruction)
Deployment of Internet and Radio as a remote teaching modality
A pie chart showing the distribution of learning modalities  as of August 2021
Data collected by the Global Education Recovery Tracker as of 08/31/2021
The use of technology is becoming a hallmark of education services in the inter and post COVID era, taking on different shapes and delivered through various channels. Globally, 79% of high-income countries are using online learning as part of a multi-channel approach. But about 2.2 billion or 2 out of 3 children globally still lack access to the internet and many low-income countries are using radio and television. While these approaches are often more accessible and cover larger segments of the student population, they offer fewer opportunities for engagement between students and teachers (though there are efforts underway to offset this with follow up voice messages, calls, WhatsApp groups, and helpdesks to increase interaction. This transformation in education is not consistent and brings to light glaring disparities in how much the quality of teaching is determined by income, accessibility, and in some cases, pre-pandemic preparedness.

Those who can have also introduced or expanded supplemental learning opportunities, helping students, particularly those who struggled in the past year, to catch up. In the United Kingdom, nearly 3,000 schools (74%) offered summer learning. Jordan reopened schools in mid-August specifically to provide remedial instruction ahead of the September school year start -nearly all 2.2 million students attended these classes – a testimony to the prevalent concern among students that their recent learning loss is deep and may jeopardize their future prospects.

These uneven trends in recovery efforts, coupled with continued pandemic disruptions, are also having uneven impact. As early as June 2020, the World Bank calculated lifetime earnings loss from school closures to be about US$10 trillion (even accounting for remote learning where it was offered). That number has only increased as some systems continue to prolong their closures in the face of yet another wave. Similarly, UNESCO estimates up to 100 million children could fall below the requisite reading proficiency levels in 2021. The majority of those children are in middle- and lower-income countries, or in economically disadvantaged communities within high income countries. A recent McKinsey study using assessments of students in the United States found that those in the majority-black schools (that tend to serve lower income communities) ended the 2020-21 school year six months behind in both math and reading, compared to peers in schools serving higher income communities-their losses averaged four months’ loss in math and three months in reading.

Perhaps equally disconcerting is the rise in gender inequalities and loss of opportunities for girls in certain environments. A World Bank study estimates as many as 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic. While dropping out of school is a detriment for all students, studies show that keeping girls in school has a higher return on investment (about 12% per year) than boys. The abrupt end of their studies brings a greater lifetime loss as well as risks of other social disadvantages.

Challenges such as these and their impact on the most disadvantaged have driven the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO to join forces and launch the "Mission: Recovering Education in 2021" - a global effort to tackle the learning losses brought on by disruptions over the past year. The mission raises alarm on the dual crisis impacting education (pre-existing learning poverty compounded by pandemic-driven disruptions). It also outlines the importance of returning students to active learning, i.e. reopening schools and safely returning students and staff.

What is to be expected of the global community, specifically education institutions?

Much! Opening schools is an advancement towards accelerating recovery more evenly. But recovery will not happen without teachers and students. Thus, vaccination of teachers and students where feasible is a priority. Furthermore, introducing assessments is critical – they are a vital tool to understand the extent of the loss. Remedial support, especially for the most disadvantaged groups (those with special educational and other needs) is a natural and effective next step as it already shows promising results in accelerating catch up. Additionally, investments in physical infrastructure is critical to ensuring safe learning (the Government of Germany allocated EUR 200 million specifically to better equip schools with proper air filters and unions in the United Kingdom put forth demand for similar actions). Lastly, rethinking infrastructure needs for schooling will go a long way in re-leveling the playing field, particularly in closing the digital divide. Whereas previously the global community has focused on ensuring schools’ basic necessities include WASH facilities, books, safety measures, and other amenities, today’s focus must expand to provide students with access to high quality digital learning through internet accessibility, similar to electricity or water.