The challenge of distance learning during the pandemic

Margarita Vaca

January 24, 2021

Children and teenagers around the world have experienced a massive disruption and interruption in their learning process due to the effects of the pandemic. The decision throughout the world of closing schools in order to reduce the spread of the virus at the beginning of 2020 meant that during its peak, around 1.6 billion students were at risk of falling behind (UNICEF and ILO, 2020).

Despite significant efforts by governments and education professionals to maintain distance learning through digital, audiovisual means, and by supplying materials, around 31% of children and teenagers (463 million students), have not had access to these resources due to the lack of tools or policies geared to their needs (UNICEF, 2020).

For example, two-thirds of children, teenagers and young people not older than 25, do not have access to the internet at home (UNICEF and ITU 2020). This is the most popular tool for distance learning (74% in primary education, and 77% in high school).

It is estimated that 40% of countries did not implement distance learning measures for preschool, which is a critical stage for the future of these generations. Every dollar invested in increasing enrollment for preschool, generates $9 dollars in the society’s future economy, while also reducing failing and dropout rates in the following school levels (UNICEF, 2020). 

Unfortunately, multiple studies have highlighted the effect of the crisis on the most vulnerable population such as the lack of family assets, geographic connectivity issues, the presence of armed conflicts and other social conditions described below:

  • 3 out of 4 school-aged children who lack access to distance learning live in the poorest households or live in rural areas (UNICEF, 2020).
  • As of 2019, 48% of all school-aged refugee children and teenagers – roughly 1.8 million students – were not enrolled in school. This number may increase considerably due to the consequences of the pandemic. In addition, it is estimated that 50% of refugee girls who attend secondary school will not return to school when classes are resumed, while 3% of refugees enrolled in higher education, (which is already a very low number), may face issues when resuming their lessons (UNHCR, 2020).
  • Given the economic impacts of the pandemic and the closure of schools, it is expected that half a million girls are at risk of early marriage while one million may be vulnerable to getting pregnant during their adolescence. Childbirth is the main cause of death among young people aged from 15 to 19, given the economic impacts of the pandemic and the closure of schools (Save the Children, 2020).

On the other hand, the World Bank forecasts a contraction in the world economy during 2020 of 4.3%. Latin America and the Caribbean (-6.9%), as well as South Asia (-6.7%) would be the most affected. This may result in a reduction of public spending on education, given that governments face a complex allocation of public funds that require attention in multiple spheres, with health care and well-being costs being a priority.

Before the pandemic, the education sector had a high financing deficit, where $1.48 billion (a deficit of 29%) was missing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Quality of education (United Nations, 2020). The report named What have we learnt? Findings from a ministry of education survey on national responses to COVID-19, also evidence this situation by calculating that “nearly 40% of low- and lower-middle-income countries anticipated or suffered cuts in their country’s education budgets to the current year or the next one ”(UNESCO, UNICEF and World Bank, 2020).

The economic crisis that the world is experiencing may lead to an increase between 88 and 115 million people living in extreme poverty throughout 2020 (World Bank, 2020). This can increase the rates of child labour, which has an impact in their education. The loss of parental employment, the absence of an adult in the nuclear family, as well as the responsibility of fulfilling domestic tasks, also influence school dropout. According to several studies, a 1% increase in poverty leads to a minimum increase of 0.7% in child labour (UNICEF & ILO, 2020). It is estimated that around 152 million girls and boys were involved in child labour before the pandemic (ILO, 2020), and as a result, they could end up working longer hours and under worse conditions. Girls and boys who drop out of school could end up in the same situation.

These numbers are a wake-up call for all actors and especially to governments to strengthen and expand the coverage of policies to prevent an increase in educational gaps, as well as technological, monetary, or social gaps that may put in jeopardy the future of an entire generation. The International Day of Education, celebrated each January 24, highlights this premise and promotes the recovery and revitalization of education for the generation that is being educated during the health emergency imposed by COVID-19.

To achieve this, it is essential that public spending on education is regarded as a priority in the long term, in order to guarantee an investment to comply with the fundamental right to access education, train teachers and parents, and think about a future reopening of schools. The latter implies the adaptation of the physical and digital infrastructure and health facilities, as well as use biosafety protocols, among other steps that guarantee a safe return.

Likewise, it is necessary to formulate various measures to combat the set of vulnerabilities and unfavorable situations to which children and teenagers are exposed. The articulation of public policies should be the guiding principle to achieve a resilient education that leaves no one behind in line with the goals of the 2030 Agenda. These policies are transversal to several areas such as employment (decent employment for parents), social (universal social protection), cultural (addressing social and gender norms that currently restraints the use of digital technology), economic (targeted cash transfers) and educational (provision of tools for distance learning).

Finally, education must be reconceptualized to go beyond classes and be understood by all actors as the motor of society. The cognitive, social skills, and critical thinking developed in the classrooms, raise opportunities for changing lives and allows breaking the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty by promoting the empowerment of women, creating mechanisms of defense against social issues weight such as marriage or child labour, while also increasing the economic growth of a country.


About the author

Margarita Vaca

Economist specialized in Applied Statistics and technical studies in business logistics and project management. Experience in statistical and econometric analysis, preparation of technical reports and formulation of indicators. Researcher of the Data Area of Cepei.