These Six Urgent Actions are Needed to Recover from Pandemic School Closures

Trillions of hours of face-to-face learning has been lost during the pandemic. Photo: ADB
Trillions of hours of face-to-face learning has been lost during the pandemic. Photo: ADB

By Albert Park, Rhea Molato Gayares, Milan Thomas, Jukka Tulivuori

A strategic combination of actions at the local and national level is needed to recover from learning losses caused by COVID-19 and address the learning crisis that existed long before the pandemic.

 A generation of students is at risk of suffering from lower productivity and well-being for the rest of their lives because of schooling missed during the pandemic. It is estimated that over 2 trillion hours of face-to-face learning have been lost. 

Marginalized learners, including children with disabilities and those living in remote and rural areas, have been hit the hardest. Students from the poorest families have not had access to effective remote learning. And even today, two in five learners continue to experience significant disruptions to their education due to the lingering effects of the pandemic.

To recover these losses, we recommend the following actions

First, open schools and get children learning in-person again. The longer students remain out of school, the harder it is to get them back.  Even before COVID-19 hit, there were over 100 million out of school youth in Asia and the Pacific, and now the numbers are even higher.

COVID-19 will likely never be eradicated, but most of Asia has now achieved substantial vaccination rates, such that the disease can be treated as endemic if boosters are deployed appropriately. Endemic approaches are especially appropriate for children, who have far lower COVID-19 risks than adults. To make sure all children return to school, there should also be public back-to-school campaigns and systemic monitoring. 

Second, it is important to measure the extent of learning losses as soon as students return to classrooms. Nationally representative surveys and tests can help to inform policy makers about the distribution of learning levels across the country, regions, and localities, and across groups defined by socioeconomic status and gender. 

At a minimum, these surveys should cover foundational skills of literacy and numeracy. In addition, teachers should conduct regular check-ups, or formative assessments. These assessments enable teachers to track students’ progress, make adjustments to ensure they are teaching appropriate material, support lagging students, and evaluate the effectiveness of different catch-up strategies.

Two in five learners continue to experience significant disruptions to their education due to the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Third, teaching must be tailored to the learning level of students. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified disparities in learning levels among students within the same class.  Tailoring instruction to each student’s level has been found to be effective in lifting the performance of students at all learning levels.

The specific approach to teaching at the right level depends on local context. One method is to divide the classroom into groups based on students’ level of knowledge and provide customized lessons to each group with the support of teaching assistants or other teachers. If it is not feasible to hire more teaching personnel, students can be regrouped according to learning levels and existing teachers can be reassigned to these groups. 

Another method is to use education technology (edtech) programs with embedded feedback loops that assess a student’s individual learning level and provide lessons appropriate for that level. Finally, tutoring (or mentoring) provides individualized attention and customizes lessons based on the student’s rate of progress.

Fourth, the curriculum must be revised and consolidated to focus on foundational skills and give teachers the flexibility to adjust in response to student assessments. This involves setting priorities like basic literacy and numeracy and making decisions on which lessons are most essential for each grade. 

Teachers should then be provided with the autonomy to make further adjustments for the benefit of their students. To enable this change, school priorities must shift away from administration and towards empowering teachers to apply flexibility in adjusting instruction based on the student’s progress. 

Fifth, learning hours can be extended and academic breaks reduced to increase learning time. Additional classroom time can give students the opportunity to cover material missed during school closures. This can take the form of hours added to the school day (where feasible), weekend classes, and reducing the breaks between academic years and terms. 

 The extended school hours can also provide an opportunity for students to be provided with nutritious meals, which are important for keeping children from low-income households in school.

Sixth, teacher competencies need to be improved to introduce methods for teaching to the student’s level, conducting formative assessments, and revising curricula appropriately. Supporting teachers is critical to supporting learning recovery by students. It also includes following up with teachers to ensure that new skills are employed.  

These actions will require additional financial resources – for everything from purchasing new hardware and software to additional teacher wages. But taking a strategic combination of these steps is essential for recovering learning losses and addressing the learning crisis that existed long before the pandemic began. 

Innovations that have been tested to address the learning crisis are ready to be adapted for post-pandemic learning recovery to strengthen education systems over time.

This blog post was based research from the publication,  How to Recover Learning Losses from COVID-19 School Closures in Asia and the Pacific, with research and analysis from David Anthony Raitzer and Daniel C. Suryadarmay.