In early March, as India began reporting its initial coronavirus cases, most states ordered schools to close to stop the spread of the infection. According to a UNESCO estimate, nearly 321 million Indian children were asked to stay home. Ten weeks later, they remain away from classrooms and have been advised online or distance learning. But in a country with already dismal learning levels and low internet use, how many children can actually stop the lockdown from setting their learning back?
The Annual Status of Education Report, released by nonprofit Pratham, offers some disturbing answers. In 2018, just 50 percent rural children in Class 5 could read a Class 2 level text, and only 28 percent could do division problems, the survey found. The data showed that the states with poorer learning were also the ones where students had lesser academic support at home that they would need during the lockdown, such as educated and computer-literate family members. Worse, dropout rates in poor-learning states also tend to be high.
In Jharkhand for instance, only 34 percent of Class 5 rural children could meet the bar for reading - the lowest in the country. Other parameters were also low - only 43 percent of mothers and 67 percent of fathers had been to school, just 11 percent of the families had a computer-literate member, and only 4 percent were found to have some reading material at home during the survey.
The other requirement for distance learning - the internet - is still out of bounds. According to the National Sample Survey education report, just 20 percent Indians above the age of 5 could use the internet, and only 24 percent families had the facility. The trends vary across states, and are even worse for rural areas.
Students lower on the learning ladder are also likelier to lack in financial privilege, the ASER data showed. This is key as families already dealing with poverty get thrown even further behind the rich during the lockdown, and recovery may need children to leave school and start working.
The first to drop out of schools could well be those who are already working. According to the 2011 Census, marginal or part-time workers between ages 15 and 19 who go to school numbered more than 3 million. Such children are quite likely to drop out entirely. Financial constraints and economic work are already the top two reasons for rural boys to leave school, the NSS data for 2017-18 showed. That year, 19 percent secondary students dropped out of school across India.
Loss of learning is typical every year during the summer holidays, and even more so for disadvantaged students. However, the current closures will last much longer - that too amid other concerns such as lack of social interactions and access to academic resources. As it happens, some states with poorer learning levels may not want to open schools soon enough as their coronavirus curves are still going up rapidly. Bihar, for instance, has reported a renewed spike in infections after an influx of migrants returning home in special trains this month.
The concern is not limited to India. An estimate from the United States suggested that as compared to the normal summer loss, students will return to school later this year with 30% further decline in reading levels and could fall up to a full year behind than normal in maths. In Brazil, the World Bank projects that three-month school closures could throw 84,000 more children into “learning poverty" - inability to read even after reaching the age of 10.
Losses can be economic, too. A 2018 research paper estimated that every additional year of schooling lifts future wages 10 percent more. A Brookings study using this estimate found that for the US, a four-month school shutdown could mean each student losing future wages of $1,337 per year. This could translate to a $2.5-trillion loss to the US GDP, and can be extrapolated to a $10-trillion loss to the world GDP over the coming generation, the study suggested.
In such situations, girls, who anyway battle biases in education, stand to lose much more than boys, with child marriages and unintended pregnancies also being common outcomes. According to the World Bank, girls in Sierra Leone were nearly 16 percentage points less likely to be in school after losing an entire year due to the Ebola outbreak in 2015. The same report said that secondary school enrolment fell around 7 percent in the Philippines during the Asian financial crisis of 1998-99.
At the peak of school closures in April, over 91 percent of all learners globally had been asked to stay away from classrooms, according to UNESCO.
By May 20, around 1.7 billion - or 69 percent - were still at home, of whom 1.2 billion are in 153 countries under nationwide lockdowns. As governments relax restrictions and get people back to work, schools will be top priority to save children from losing further time and learning.