How Can We Help Kids from Poor Families Hit Hard by Pandemic School Closures?

Lockdowns and school closures have had a profound impact in Bangladesh and other countries around the world. Photo: Ehteshamul Haque Adit
Lockdowns and school closures have had a profound impact in Bangladesh and other countries around the world. Photo: Ehteshamul Haque Adit

By Li Zhigang, Uttam Sharma

In Bangladesh, new surveys show the devastating impact of school closures. Countries around the world are facing similar situations. Holistic policy responses are needed to get students back in school and back on track.

As school systems fight to reopen after long closures due to COVID-19, the extent of harms to student learning is beginning to emerge. A new survey from Bangladesh, which suffered from around 18 months of school closures, raises concerns about lasting damage to education, especially among poor students. It also shines light on ways to repair the damage and better prepare systems for the next such calamity.

Bangladesh closed all educational institutions on 17 March 2020 amid a broader economic lockdown. Economic activities gradually resumed from June 2020 but were hit again in 2021 amid another lockdown from April to August 2021. The poor and marginalized suffered sharp income losses during this period.

Stand-out findings of the survey confirm what many expected from such interruptions:

  • Learning loss is a serious concern amid waning motivation and high expected drop-outs among some groups.
  • E-learning offered a lifeline but its access varied substantially across rural-urban and income levels.
  • Although most students continued learning activities, time on organized schooling with instructors fell significantly, and students received limited guidance and education-related support from their families and the community.

Improperly handled, these issues could reverse many years of steady, hard-won progress in education in the country.

Under the first point, for example, households were asked whether a child in school before school closures in March 2020 planned to return to school full-time when schools reopened. More than 13% of those enrolled planned to drop out, and about two-thirds of them had no plans of returning to a school after dropping out.

This reflected a combination of the financial issues faced after the long months of no work during the lockdown and the psychological impact on student motivation, as well as perhaps limited learning over the period.

Indeed, when the respondents were asked about their child’s desire or motivation to study, 20% low or very low motivation levels were reported as of August 2021 compared with 5% in December 2019. The percentage of children who were highly motivated decreased from 56% before the pandemic to 27% (and down from 37% in August 2020).

Virtual learning was helpful—the survey’s second point—but access to it was uneven: 87% of people surveyed perceived remote learning and e-learning as helpful. Indeed, for distance and remote learning to work, access to mobile phones, TV, radio, computers, and the internet is crucial.


Yet, access to computers and the internet is extremely low. Less than 3% have a computer at home, while just 24% of households had accessed the internet in the last 6 months. Among students surveyed, 40% had mobile phones. Internet access was higher in urban (30%) than in rural areas (21%).

In addition, although in August 2020 students had indicated a preference for in-person classroom learning, by August 2021 people were expressing growing awareness of the potential for digital devices. Among parents, 73% in August 2021 said their child was interested in learning through mobile phone, presumably because most households have access to phones, and because it also involves person-to-person interaction.

Under the third point, meanwhile, although monitoring and guidance suffered during the pandemic, it had improved significantly by August 2021 over August 2020. Yet, still 43% of the students surveyed in August 2021 were not contacted by teachers for monitoring or guidance in the previous month. Among those students contacted, most were contacted once a week or less frequently.

Given the evidence for learning loss and waning motivation among some students, policy options will have to go beyond existing primary school interventions to redress the problem. And government will have to prioritize interventions for mitigating learning loss. Possible actions include stepping up efforts to bring students back to school, adjusting the curriculum to prioritize essential learning competencies and provide remedial and bridging programs to students. 

Also clear from the results and role those digital technologies played in overcoming the challenges of the pandemic, government needs to scale up education technology using mobile phones to support school reopening, with long and short-term applications. Remote and e-learning can still play an important role, especially for those with irregular attendance and academically weaker students to offer customized learning paths, even after schools reopen.

Learning using mobile phones is the most well-received approach for e-learning according to our survey, and it covers the majority of the population. Hence, enabling teaching through mobile phones and providing free data packages will be effective in helping students for self-paced learning, augmented by regular monitoring and mentoring.

Low- tech and “no-tech” solutions that have proven effective in other countries (e.g., short message service and phone- based tutoring, solar powered radio, workbooks, and other distance-learning packages) may also be considered.

The surveys in Bangladesh suggest school lockdowns have provoked significant problems, and point to a slow learning recovery amid possible high dropout rates and low attendance after schools reopen.

The existing interventions for primary education are therefore unlikely to address these massive impacts. Instead, holistic new interventions are necessary to restore Bangladesh’s human capital growth to its impressive pre-pandemic track.