Here’s How Pandemic School Closures Worsen Asia's Educational Divide

In many parts of Asia, students took classes from home for nearly two years during the pandemic. Photo: Annushka Ahuja
In many parts of Asia, students took classes from home for nearly two years during the pandemic. Photo: Annushka Ahuja

By Stefan Schipper, Sean Crowley, Lea Rotairo

The closure of schools due to COVID-19 has had wide-ranging impacts on students and education systems. Support should focus on closing the learning gap and preparing for the next crisis.

The pandemic that has gripped Asia for more than two years continues to disrupt education across the region, affecting the most vulnerable learners the hardest. School closures began in early 2020 and remain closed in some areas.

This has increased educational inequality in some parts of Asia and the Pacific and exacerbated existing challenges. Participation rates in organized learning, often called enrollment, for boys and girls in 2020 decreased over the previous year in at least six countries in the region, mainly from the Pacific and Central Asia, according to data from ADB’s Basic Statistics 2022 publication.

Fiji had two bouts of school closures, one in 2020 and the second in April 2021 that lasted ten months. The nation’s schools reopened in January 2022, despite a third wave of COVID-19 in the country.  Although children across Fiji continued learning from home throughout, the pandemic will exacerbate existing learning inequities in education, according to Fijian sector experts.

When the data on participation in formal education is disaggregated by sex, we found that in countries where there was a significant drop from 2019 to 2020, girls were impacted more than boys. This gender gap should be considered by policymakers in the region seeking to lessen the impact of such events on school attendance.

 Widespread school closures in Asia and the Pacific spawned huge interest in distance learning and led to technological innovation to improve teaching and learning. There were many calls for greater investment in high-speed internet in schools and homes, live streaming, and virtual classes to beat the closures.

But the reality was that when the pandemic was at its height in 2020, many developing countries in the region struggled to adopt online and distance education, due to lack of resources, and variable access to digital devices and the internet, particularly in rural areas. This lack of digital connectivity and hardware to facilitate remote learning led to further exclusion from formal education for millions of young people.

Today, despite the presence of the Omicron variant, schools are open in the majority of countries in Asia and the Pacific, supported by health and safety protocols and vaccination programs.

Numerous studies have shown that school closures appear to have limited or no effect on the spread of COVID-19. The exception is Israel, which found a small gradual increase in COVID-19 incidence after schools were reopened, but no observed increase of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths.

As the region struggles to come to terms with how the pandemic has impacted education, some suggest that the region has much to learn from the surge in online schooling in the People’s Republic of China during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move to online study in the country from early 2020 highlights the importance of reliable networks and devices; quality online teaching platforms; and the preparedness of teachers, students, and parents.  Mainstreaming schooling that utilizes both online and offline learning and can rapidly transition between both may be a model worth emulating beyond the pandemic.

There is also a need to support countries which lag behind in terms of adopting ICT and EdTech (online or mobile platforms, software or devices that facilitate or enhance learning). The support can mitigate the impact of school closures, address learning losses, and adapt education systems.

These measures should enable those countries to cope better with teaching and learning during external shocks like the pandemic, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.