Asia's Governments Need to Act Now on Scarring Effects of School Closures

In many countries in Asia, schools have been closed for nearly two years.
In many countries in Asia, schools have been closed for nearly two years.

By Cyn-Young Park (朴信永)

Profound impacts are already being felt due to school closures in Asia. Urgent action is needed to limit further damage to students and the broader economy.

School closures have affected more than 1.5 billion students in 195 countries, with potential impacts on their employment opportunities and future earnings, according to UNESCO. The learning and earning losses will also have long-term societal impacts on economic growth, poverty, and inequality. A recent study I co-authored estimates that  school closures could cost the global economy $943 billion by 2030.

Earning losses from school closures, which reduce labor productivity, will lead GDP to fall in almost all countries. But economies with significant populations of school children and college-going youth in rural areas—and in the poorest and second wealth quintiles—will be worst-hit.

Where school enrollment in rural areas is considerably high, the economic impact tends to be large as students lack access to stable internet connections needed to study online. If a country has a high share of unskilled workers, learning and earning losses will be also more significant. This is because the impacted children would be less likely to transition to higher education and more likely to instead enter the unskilled labor force.

For example, in Asia the countries most affected by learning losses are the Kyrgyz Republic (a 5.5% contraction in GDP against the baseline, assuming no COVID-19), Nepal (a 5.0% decline), Mongolia (a 4.9% decline), and Bangladesh (a 4.9% decline). These countries have had the longest school closures and deepest earning losses. Student enrollment in the rural, poorest wealth quintile is also high in Kyrgyz Republic and Mongolia. The share of unskilled labor employment in Bangladesh, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia and Nepal is also well above the average of other Asian countries.

Singapore is an interesting exception. It will experience an increase in GDP from 2026, reversing the early GDP losses. The initial losses are limited due to the small share of unskilled workers in the Singapore labor force, and the fact that school closures have not been as extensive as elsewhere in the region.  A high share of skilled labor contributes to increased global competitiveness given greater learning losses in other countries, eventually leading to faster growth.

More importantly, the impact of school closures is uneven between skilled and unskilled labor. Global employment losses are expected to reach 5.45 million for skilled labor and 35.69 million for unskilled labor in 2030.

Economies with significant populations of school children and college-going youth in rural areas—and in the poorest and second wealth quintiles—will be worst-hit.

The gap between skilled and unskilled labor in employment losses also diverges over time. For skilled labor, the decline in employment will increase from 0.05% in 2024 to 0.22% in 2027 and 0.75% in 2030. For unskilled labor, the contraction in employment will increase from 0.12% in 2024 to 0.51% in 2027 and 1.15% in 2030.

 School closures due to COVID-19 will likely leave long-term economic scarring effects, both in terms of earnings losses for individuals and the reduction in long-term productivity and growth for economies. Without appropriate policy support, disruptions in school education will translate into fewer students transitioning to higher education, higher unemployment, and reduced earnings potential.

This calls for urgent policy actions:

First, support learning recovery. The most immediate challenge is for governments to provide effective support for students impacted by school closures to recover from lost opportunities. The first step is to conduct assessments of learning losses among the impacted school-age population. It is important to identify the learning gaps and specific learning needs of individuals. Effective learning programs should be devised to offer appropriate support, such as tutoring or special classes, and help them bridge the learning gap.

Second, invest in education and skills.  The pandemic impact on education affects the future workforce and their skills. It is essential that governments prioritize spending on education, even as they pare back budgets after expanded spending on COVID-19 mitigation.

Governments need to direct adequate funding and resources to young populations most affected by closures, such as those from poor, rural, and socially disadvantaged groups. It is important to keep school-age children in education as much as possible by providing financial support and incentives, while giving additional support for skills training to youth already out of school.

Third, embrace the digital transformation in education. The pandemic promoted rapid digital transformation, and education systems should be better prepared to support this as a key driver for productivity and economic expansion. Digital skills and awareness are key to narrowing the digital divide and unleashing new potential for inclusive and sustainable growth.

However, the pandemic revealed key constraints of education systems, including the lack of digital curriculums, digital teaching tools, and materials. Even more important, it exposed the lack of digital competencies among teachers and trainers.  It is essential to seize opportunities to make progress during the post-pandemic recovery by rebuilding education systems to allow both face-to-face and remote learning, integrating digital tools and devices into teaching methods, improving digital skills through developing school curriculums, and training teachers to deliver effective learning.

Extensive impacts are already being felt by school closures in Asia. Immediate actions are needed to mitigate further damage going forward.