Education crisis grips poor countries hit hardest by pandemic

Tamanna Khan has been struggling to catch up on her classes since her school in India reopened this spring, almost two years after it was closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 11-year-old’s family was hit hard by the economic consequences of the illness. This wiped out her father’s income as a tailor in Mumbai, and he and his wife were forced to leave their slum dwelling to drive several hours back to their home village. They left their daughter with her aunt, where she struggled to continue her online studies with just a cell phone.

“Studying online was very difficult and boring, with bad connections. I had a lot of problems studying,” said Khan, who has since gone back to school. “It was very difficult being without my parents.”

The pandemic has left millions of children around the world like Khan living in poverty, facing educational setbacks and emotional distress. Now they face new pressures as rising inflation and food insecurity threaten their families’ livelihoods, the funding of their schools and their own futures.

Parents, teachers and policy makers are concerned about how to help youth who are facing multiple challenges. These issues will be debated by governments at the United Nations Transforming Education Summit in New York on Monday, where calls for significant funding to deal with the crisis are expected.

The chart showing the proportion of 10-year-olds who cannot read with basic comprehension remains very high in low-income regions of the world

“There is a huge learning gap because of the pandemic,” said Divya Dhangar, who works on a Teach for India program in 34 schools in Mumbai, including Khan’s. “Children have become so used to staying at home that they haven’t realized the importance of learning.”

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Dhangar estimates that a third of her children have fallen below normal achievement levels and some have since dropped out of education altogether.

A World Bank estimate says “learning poverty” — which it defines as children who cannot understand a simple written text by the age of 10 — has increased by a third in low- and middle-income countries since the pandemic began. 70 percent of 10-year-olds in these countries are now unable to understand simple texts, compared to 57 percent in 2019.

Without a restructuring by governments to find new and more targeted means to address the growing inequalities resulting from Covid-19, the global income lost over the lifetimes of children educated during the pandemic would amount to US$21 trillion .

Stefania Giannini, deputy director-general for education at Unesco, warned of a looming “education crisis” at a preparatory summit in June, adding: “Unless we radically change our priorities, there is no going back.”

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A World Bank estimate says “learning poverty” in low- and middle-income countries has increased by a third since the coronavirus pandemic began © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

There is shared concern about the tightening of government finances for schools in poorer countries, caused by the economic slowdown during the pandemic, rising debt and interest payments and the prospect of persistent inflation. According to a World Bank survey of finance ministries, two-fifths of low- and middle-income countries have cut their education spending by an average of 13.5 percent since 2020.

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This has drawn renewed attention to the need to ensure more efficient spending. In addition to supporting emotional well-being, the World Bank, Unesco, Unicef ​​and donors involved in the Summit advocate for a greater focus on “essential learning” and improving student outcomes, particularly by teaching strong literacy and numeracy skills in primary school as essential building blocks​ ​for their future students educational progress.

But with little sign of new funds or consensus on the policy, some are skeptical of the UN assembly. “Expectations are low,” wrote the Center for Global Development, a think tank, ahead of the summit. “No one is proposing any binding international agreement on educational standards, and foreign donors show little sign of making any major new financial commitments.”

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The think tank argues that the summit’s agenda is too broad, including factors such as education, which focuses on climate change awareness. But the analysts themselves call for more attention to even more policy actions, including preventing violence in schools and tackling the ongoing dangers of lead poisoning to child development in low-income countries.

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Since Russia’s war in Ukraine sparked new concerns about food poverty, school feeding programs have become a particular focus in both richer and poorer countries. The aim is to fight hunger at home, give families incentives to keep their children in school and help them to develop healthily through improved nutrition.

“School meals are a good investment. It has to be universal,” says Wawira Njiru, director of Food4education, a Kenyan charity that runs programs in 77 schools across the country and is seeing increasing demand. “It’s really shocking to see how rising food costs mean parents can’t afford to feed their children and how that’s affecting them.”

Laura Savage, head of the International Education Funders Group, a gathering of philanthropists looking to coordinate their support, said Monday’s education summit must go beyond simply emphasizing concerns about the global crisis and practical action to help the world’s poorest children work out.

“I remain a firm believer that educational advancement is not about understanding what works, but about how support is provided,” she said.

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