In March 2020, when the WHO declared a pandemic, more than 1.5 billion children around the world faced the unprecedented challenge of not being able to attend school. Today we know that an estimated 90 percent of the world’s school-aged children have had their education disrupted by the pandemic. Some schools closed partially, others completely, and closure periods also vary, from a few weeks to nearly a year (UNESCO, 2021).
Even in the best scenario (closure of just a few weeks, online learning tools available) students made little or no progress while learning from home. School closures will exacerbate the learning crisis and the education gaps that existed before the pandemic. What is most alarming is that, as in other aspects of the pandemic, the effects on children from lower-income countries and households are far greater. The pandemic and the subsequent socioeconomic crisis have accentuated the economic and social barriers to opportunities. Not only are the schools that have been closed the longest in lower-income countries (mainly in Africa and Latin America), but the scarce resources students have to continue their studies, and the social context to which they are exposed, hinder their learning and increase the likelihood of dropping out of school even more.
One of the barriers that most discriminates between higher and lower income students is the “digital divide”: access to the internet and electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, and TV. Children from poorer households, rural areas and lower-income countries are falling further behind their peers and have very little opportunity to catch up.
According to the recent UNICEF report How many children and young people have internet access at home?, globally, 58% of school-age children from richest households have internet connection at home, compared with only 16% of children in poorer households. By country income level, less than 1 in 20 school-age children from low-income countries have internet connection at home, compared with nearly 9 in 10 from high-income countries. And by geographic level, globally, only 25% of school-age children living in rural households have internet access at home, compared with 40% in urban areas. And even if children do have an internet connection at home, UNICEF states that they may not be able to use it, due to their household chores, lack of sufficient devices in their households, girls being allowed less or no internet access, or a lack of understanding of how to access opportunities online.
Based on data from UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), we found that the countries that closed schools for less than 100 days, and whose population has greater access to the Internet (more than 77% of the population) are predominantly high-income. On the other hand, countries that closed schools for more than 100 days (some for more than a year), and with less internet access, are predominantly low- and middle-income and will face the greatest loss in terms of education. The countries most affected in this regard are Philippines, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, India and Bangladesh.
In Mexico, schools have been closed for 276 days, and the rate of Internet access per household is 56.4% (high risk); In Argentina, schools have been closed for 157 days, and the rate of Internet access per household is 75.9% (medium-low risk); in Costa Rica, schools have been closed for 270 days, and the rate of Internet access is 86.3% (medium-low risk).
School closures have been extended in lower-middle income countries, mostly because of their structural challenges to contain the spread of the virus. In these same countries, Internet access and computer, TV and cellphone ownership is less common than in high-income countries. The consequence is the isolation of many students from distance learning schemes, perpetuating previous disadvantages derived from income and geographical inequalities, between the Global South and North, but also within countries.
The consequences of the education loss will be long-term, public and private. According to the World Bank, the global school closures could result in a loss of at least US $10 trillion in lifetime earnings for this generation (World Bank, 2020). The long-term costs of this loss in human capital will be reflected, if nothing is done, both at the individual and societal level.
The world is facing the most significant educational reversal in history, one that will particularly undermine the future (both in terms of economic and mental and physical health) for the most vulnerable children in low and middle-income countries. To avoid growing gaps in education between and within countries, urgent remedial measures are required, especially for children in those countries with low access to technology and over extended school closures. The future of hundreds of millions of children –and the societies where they will grow– is at stake.