Stepping into the classroom after the pandemic, students seem to struggle less with the concepts being taught, than with the other challenges facing them because of the two-year hiatus from offline school.
‘Learning gap’ refers to the phenomenon wherein students have developed a gap in their fundamental concepts due to the missed or difficult years in school. It is observed that students worldwide have developed learning gaps due to COVID-induced lockdowns and school closures. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021, for instance, the ratio of students in classes 2 to 4, in Chhattisgarh, who are not able to recognise letters has doubled since 2018, with a sharp drop in basic mathematics. However, the nature and intensity of the gap depends on multiple factors such as the intensity of COVID restrictions, accessibility to online education, social stratification leading to differential access, etc. The ‘learning gap’ is just the most tangible COVID-induced challenge in the education sector to have surfaced, yet. This article explores some of these challenges induced by the pandemic in the education sector.
Losses in terms of GDP
It is estimated that school closures may cause present-day students to collectively lose up to $17 billion over a lifetime, in current value, approximately 14% of the present global GDP. According to a working paper report by the Asian Development Bank, “In terms of absolute change, India experiences the highest GDP decline in South Asia, at about $98.84 billion in 2030. In percentage terms, its GDP decreases by 0.34% in 2023, 1.36% in 2026, and 3.19% in 2030”. This loss in GDP may significantly decrease the standard of living in the future. Furthermore, “losses in global GDP and employment increase over time.”
Bridging the Learning Gap
A UNESCO study found that ‘learning poverty’ during the pandemic in middle and low-income economies increased from 53% to 70%. ‘Learning poverty’ is an indicator that measures the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency, i.e., reading and understanding a simple text by the age of ten. According to a joint report by the UNESCO, UNICEF, and World Bank, past disruptions to education such as the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 suggest that learning losses may increase even after children return to school if the previous curricula are not covered. The principal recommendations to cope with this challenge include readjusting the curriculum to cover missed work, time adjustments for students – need-based instructions, support to teachers, and teaching infrastructure.
India ranked 101 out of 116 countries according to the global hunger index in 2021, scoring 27.5 — a serious level of hunger. The mid-day meal scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services, and the Public Distribution System are the key policies to ensuring basic food security in India. However, their implementation during the pandemic was difficult since they are complementary to child care and educational services. Fully reopening schools must be prioritised, and attention must be paid towards re-scaling mid-day meals to maximum benefit.
Not a pre-pandemic utopia
During the past two years, students were not only deprived of quality education but also its positive externalities and government-provided incentives, for example, mid-day meals, scopes of physical and mental well-being such as sports and exercise, counselling support, art and musical training, peer-engagement, etc, that make up a chunk of healthy school-life. The disruption of life during the pandemic has affected mental health and social connect. Students who lost family members are still in grief. Losing an earning member of the family is financially harder for a household and some students are forced to take up jobs to support their families. Following the economic losses and school closures, many were forced to drop out and go into child labour or marry early instead. The pandemic made already vulnerable sections of society much more vulnerable to disease, insecurity and exploitation. Students may fall in more than one vulnerable category. The digital divide further wedged the gap between for example, low income, rural households and high income, urban households. The digital divide and other inequalities accentuated the differences between the haves and the have-nots. While economically well-off students were advantaged by the exponential increase in online learning resources in addition to the online remote shift of school-work, disadvantaged students did not have access to basic school work, having been fully cut-off from school. First generation learners were at an even greater disadvantage as they lacked home-schooling, guidance and/or motivation for self-studies. Simply resuming school does not help cover up for this lacuna. If these gaps aren’t compensated for, the disadvantages shall continue to compound over time. Continuing ‘pre-pandemic life as usual’ after the crises is be impossible.
Student life post-pandemic cannot be remotely equated to a pre-pandemic utopia. Educational institutions must try to recreate a positive learning environment by carefully addressing not only the learning gap, but also the mental trauma, digital divide, and other insecurities still faced by the students due to the pandemic. Special initiatives must be taken to ensure that students from vulnerable sections do not fall behind in the discourse of post-pandemic educational recovery.
(Written by Lavanya Goswami and Edited by Anoushka Gehani)