Learning losses due to school closures are one of the biggest global threats to long-term recovery from Covid-19 and the economic cost will be severe if corrective action is not taken urgently, according to Nobel laureate Abhijeet Banerjee.
Noting that temporary school closures will cause permanent damage, he said merely reopening schools will not be enough and not measuring learning losses and taking steps to integrate children back into the system will be a "recipe for disaster".
The noted economist is co-chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), which is working on recommendations for the education sector in the post-pandemic world. He won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics.
"The short- and long-term impact of the Covid-19 crisis on children's education, wellbeing, and future productivity is profound. Almost two years after schools began closing in most countries across the world, governments need to take urgent steps to limit the damage. Estimates suggest the economic cost of lost learning from the crisis will be in the trillions of US dollars if corrective action is not urgently taken," Banerjee told PTI in a telephonic interview from Massachusetts in the US.
"While many other sectors have rebounded when lockdowns ease, the damage to children's education is likely to reduce children's wellbeing and productivity for decades, making education disruption and learning losses due to school closures, one of the biggest threats to medium- and long-term recovery from Covid-19 unless governments act swiftly," he added.
Banerjee, who is currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said schools need to reopen at the first opportunity.
"Schools need to reopen and be kept open as far as possible but that is not going to be enough. Addressing the issue of dropouts to ensure they return to school and also having a plan for reintegrating children back into the school system is very important. Not measuring learning losses and acting as per the results will be an absolute recipe for disaster. We need to acknowledge that children will definitely fall behind and urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the gap and minimise the earning losses," he said.
Launched in July 2020, GEEAP is an independent, cross-disciplinary body composed of leading education experts from around the world. Its mandate is to provide succinct, usable, and policy-focused recommendations to support policymakers' decision-making on education investments in low- and middle-income countries.
"The third factor that the countries need to work upon urgently is teachers training. The teachers already had a tough job and with learning losses, children falling behind and varied learning levels in the classroom makes it more difficult for teachers to help most students catch up. Providing teachers with simple teaching guides combined with strong monitoring and feedback systems can help them structure their pedagogical approach and ensure that children learn effectively. Additional tutoring can also help children to catch-up," Banerjee said.
"In addition to necessitating urgent recovery efforts, the pandemic offers a rare opportunity to rethink and reset education provision so children across all identities, socioeconomic backgrounds and circumstances can learn and thrive," he added.
Banerjee also warned against closing schools again unless there is an aggressive variant of Covid-19 which puts children at extremely high risk.
"Even in the case of new outbreaks, schools should be the last institution to close and the first to reopen, given the relatively low risk of transmission and the high cost to youth. If there is an aggressive variant of Covid-19 which puts children at extremely high risk, of course, nobody will want the children to be dying. But if that is not the situation, I believe we should avoid closing schools further," he said.
Schools across the globe closed in 2020 following the outbreak of novel coronavirus and have reopened in various countries depending upon the Covid-19 situation. At the peak of the crisis, UNESCO data showed that over 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries were out of school. Over 100 million teachers and school personnel were impacted by the sudden closures of learning institutions.