Across Asia and the Pacific, students and parents are breathing a sigh of relief as schools reopen and in-person classes gradually resume. But now comes the reckoning: Failure to make up for the significant amount of education that students lost during the pandemic could diminish their earnings potential and cause substantial damage to economic equity across the region.

The urgent task facing governments is to mitigate these losses by strengthening schools and social safety nets. This must start soon, with a new academic year just months away in many Asian countries.

The cost of doing nothing will be steep. While many schools offered remote learning during the pandemic, this was a poor substitute for in-person instruction—especially in developing countries. According to Asian Development Bank estimates, students in developing Asia lost over half a year of effective learning on average.

If not fixed, this will reduce their future productivity and earning potential throughout their working lives—translating into an estimated $3.2 trillion in aggregated lost earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), equivalent to 13% of developing Asia’s GDP in 2020.

The learning losses during the pandemic weren’t borne evenly, making the job of reversing them even more challenging. Girls and students from poorer households struggle with remote learning as they have less access to computers, the internet, a parent or other adult who can help them, and a conducive home study environment.

Moreover, they are often removed from schooling in response to economic hardship—which many households experienced during the pandemic. Learning losses for students from the poorest 20% of households are estimated to have been one-third higher than for students from the richest 20%, corresponding to a projected 47% greater loss of lifetime earnings. Girls are expected to lose 28% more than boys in future earnings.

To shrink these gaps and reduce overall losses, governments need to take steps to improve the overall quality of education, make up for lost learning, and support disadvantaged students.

As a first step, it’s important to prevent further learning losses by making sure in-person classes can resume safely. This may mean expanding classrooms to enable social distancing, ensuring proper ventilation, installing handwashing and sanitation stations, scheduling meals to avoid crowding, and monitoring symptoms. Schools that mainly serve low-income students are in greater need of improvements and should receive more financial support for upgrades.

A second step is to offset lost learning through targeted instruction and regular tracking of student progress. In Bangladesh, individual mentoring was found to improve numeracy by 32% and English literacy by 55% during the pandemic—and gains were higher for poor, lagging students with less-educated parents.

Even before COVID-19, programs that match instruction to individual student learning levels (instead of using a uniform, fixed syllabus) significantly improved test scores in randomized controlled trials conducted in India, Ghana, and Kenya. Technology such as the Mindspark software can customize educational content for students and deliver high-impact, individualized teaching. Experience during the pandemic also showed that mobilizing families, communities, and volunteers to support education outcomes can speed children’s learning.

The digital divide must be narrowed to improve the learning opportunities and ultimately the life chances of poorer students. The pandemic has made digital infrastructure even more central to education and communication, and disadvantaged students are more likely to prosper if they have adequate access to digital connectivity, hardware, and software.

Digital literacy campaigns can target girls, and governments can work with internet service providers (ISPs) to offer more affordable internet access, for instance through subsidies. In Sri Lanka, the government struck a deal with ISPs to give students free access to university-based learning management systems while schools were closed—lifting the participation rate of higher education students in online learning to more than 90%.

Strengthening social safety nets is also critical, as it will encourage school attendance. School feeding programs and cash transfers for education use can reduce dropout rates among disadvantaged students and encourage those who have stopped schooling to re-enroll. Before the pandemic, participation in a cash transfer earmarked for girls’ education in Bangladesh increased their schooling by more than 3 years on average.

Finally, now is the time to build flexibility and emergency resilience into education systems. Disruptions will occur again. The capacity to shift to remote schooling on short notice must be built into the education system, and everyone—teachers, parents, students, and administrators—must be prepared. Innovations in education that were sparked by pandemic closures, like student mentoring via mobile phone calls, can be blended into the regular curriculum to prepare students for the next break in physical classes.

The choice is clear. We can let a generation of students fall further behind and pay the price for lost learning, or we can give them the education they deserve. By taking the latter course, we’ll help them realize their own potential and create a more equitable and prosperous region.

This article is copyrighted by Project Syndicate, where it first appeared.