COVID generation and education: A blind spot

Thursday, 18 March 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As of the end of 2020, students had a drastically varying degree of access to quality education. It may take years to unpack how the pandemic affects student learning, social and emotional development and to identify any lasting effects on low-income communities – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


The last time the world saw so many school closures was during World War II. The long-term impact of COVID and education reveal harsh and sustained inequalities in the labour market and education outcomes for youth under the age of 25. This is likely to affect Sri Lanka’s future as higher income disparities and education inequalities are the key drivers of low social mobility. 

To avoid a decline in social mobility these inequalities in the education system need to be combatted through new policies. If we do not attend to this, the loss of education this past year will affect us all in the future. 

Countries around the world have chosen to prioritise teachers and educators in national vaccine rollouts. School re-openings have been prioritised globally in order to mitigate negative impacts on children, as well as families that rely on schools as forms of childcare. However, in Colombo, educators are not vaccinated on priority basis, instead, chaotic vaccination centres are created for “all”.

Does Sri Lanka have any practical policies to mitigate the impact on young children who have been out of school for a long period of time? While policies have been put in place to open businesses, bars and restaurants in the name of economic revival, little effort has been put into opening schools in Colombo. 

This is a critical mistake. The impact of indefinitely-closed schools is yet to be understood as the emergency is ongoing. But it is abundantly clear that school closures are impacting middle to lower income communities at a far steeper price than those of the elite. And this will continue to be exacerbated if effort is not put into mitigate.

A COVID generation of winners and losers through disrupted education as public funds are directed towards health and social welfare and education is at risk of being compromised even further in the future. It is a mistake to not consider the long-term impacts of education through COVID-driven losses. These impacts could turn out to be as far-reaching as that of social welfare, long-term healthcare, health costs and unemployment crisis.

The Matthew Effect 

While our nation ponders about import bans and exchange rates, the disadvantages will accumulate and rise to students that are already left behind and thus, are left behind even further. This widening disparity is known as the Matthew Effect. This will not affect all student groups. 

The pandemic has proven to have winners and losers in all areas of life but for this article, we discuss the winners and losers in education specifically. It may take years to unpack how the pandemic affects student learning, social and emotional development and to identify any lasting effects on low-income communities. However, it is necessary that we start unpacking this now through effective policies.

Globally, “COVID generation” is a new buzz word that refers to students both young children and adolescents under 20 who are affected by this lengthy school closure. UNICEF estimates that around 1.7 billion students globally have been affected by this. 

As of the end of 2020, students had a drastically varying degree of access to quality education. With years of development work in the field of education, we have lost some pivotal work in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. 

The lost learning over this year for this generation will have detrimental effects on the rest of their lives including the remainder of their schooling years and careers. UNESCO published data includes a list of short-term detrimental effects of school closures such as: 

  • Interrupted learning where disadvantages are disproportionate for low income- underprivileged learners 
  • Nutrition compromised due to school closures
  • Schools were safe spaces that protected the population of children
  • Underprivileged parents disproportionately underprepared for remote learning/teaching
  • Gaps in childcare 
  • Huge economic costs – With many women disproportionately leaving the workforce
  • Rise in dropout rates 
  • Social isolation and detrimental mental health effects

Keep in mind that this list is only the short-term effects of COVID-19 and education. The relationship between inequalities and economic growth has been studied extensively. Keeping ethical considerations out of the equation for a moment, in the short run, this COVID generation will affect mostly households (microeconomics) however, in the long run, these detrimental effects of COVID generation will affect the economy as a whole (macroeconomics). In economic terms, the prices of inputs become “sticky” and less flexible. Meaning, how we manage our inputs (students and workforce) right now is detrimental to long term repercussions. 

Therefore, it is vital that we mitigate certain policies effectively to curb long term repercussions and implement policies that reduce inequalities among this COVID generation. These policies need to be implemented post school re-opening as well because the Matthew effect has already taken place and there has already been a loss of education and learning. A few long-term effects of the COVID generation are:

  • Increased challenge for mental health and wellbeing of students and teachers
  • Increased Social inequality
  • Increased gender inequality 
  • Increased crime
  • Higher unemployment levels
  • Economic shifts and structural change
  • Sustainability setbacks

Learning loss: hysteresis in education 

In labour economics, the word hysteresis most often refers to the long-term effect of unemployment on a worker’s ability to find a job. This term could also be referred to in education to the long-term impact of school closures on students’ outcomes. It stems from the different elements, often associated with socio-economic backgrounds that lead to a withdrawal from the schooling system that will instigate long term impacts on students' learning outcomes. 

Such elements comprise the struggle some students face to maintain their learning speed from home due to inadequate resources, the gradual erosion of their basic academic skills with a lack of practice, the difficulty in participating with education activities, and the demotivation and mental degradation as they fall further behind. 

Which groups will be most affected then? 

Oxford University conducted a study that showed that average learning loss was 55% more for students from less educated homes. The problem is concentrated in homes with less educated parents who have not been capable of continuing learning at home. 

Recognising this unfortunate effect of COVID 19 and the challenge to education with its widening inequalities was seen in 2020. However, with the dire urgency to open schools in Colombo, have we considered how to move forward with educators/teachers and give them the necessary tools to assist this “COVID generation”? Have we detected and implemented any policies that can specifically target this inequality and education disruption that will negatively affect the nation in the long run? 

We need to urgently discuss students and teacher transitions and arrangements that enable them to move upwards as individuals and as a nation. At the heart of a free, public education system, despite the pertaining inequalities that already exist in terms of available resources, online teaching excludes some demographics from this desired common space.

It is understood that online education was the only way out. With financial difficulties, providing all students and teachers with appropriate equipment, training and the internet was not possible. However, how do we move forward from here and what can we do right now? Have we planned policies that will come into place for this generation that has been stripped of valuable education for an entire year? There is an urgency for better planning in education policy or else the negative consequences in the loss of learning will be seen long after this pandemic ends. 

Where do we go from here?

As countries explore ways forward to reopen schools and design new models of education that expand the borders of the physical schools through technology, Sri Lanka must identify international frameworks or frameworks developed by specialists in a local context that consists of a set of general recommendations and guiding questions that can inform the development of mid-term education strategies and, more broadly, help build school systems’ resilience for potential education emergencies. Sri Lanka must prioritise the safe reopening of schools (and vaccination of teachers) as one of national importance.

Public policy must be that which aims to protect the entire public, and not be limited to the economic interests of the few. As a country with a free public education system this must be considered at a much higher priority in order to avoid long-term detrimental impacts to society.

(The writer is a recent graduate from University College London, UK with a MA in Education Policy and International Development and a BA in Economics from Mount Holyoke College, USA. Her former work, based in Washington DC, focused on international development in developing countries. She has a passion for education and social change and recently moved back to Colombo after 10 years and currently works in the higher education landscape.)


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