Learning Losses: How Students Can Overcome the Cost of COVID-19 (ADB Insight Full Episode)

Video | 20 May 2022



Nisha Pillai: Hello and welcome to ADB Insight. I’m Nisha Pillai.

The easing of the COVID-19 pandemic means the imminent return to classrooms of hundreds of millions of students across the Asia-Pacific region.

For the past two years, many schools have had to shut their doors, leaving students to continue their education as best they can from home.

Inevitably, it’s had a big impact—especially for students from poor and low-income backgrounds. But, new data from ADB suggests that disruption could be felt for decades as these students graduate and enter the workforce.

To discuss the cost of this disruption—and what policymakers can do to try and mitigate the learning losses—I’m joined now by Rhea Molato-Gayares, an economist at ADB who’s been researching this very topic for the recent Asian Development Outlook.

Rhea, good to have you with us.

Rhea Molato-Gayares: Good to be with you, Nisha.

Nisha Pillai: So, we know that the COVID pandemic has had a massive impact on every aspect of our lives. Tell us about the impact, particularly that it's had on the lives of young people in the region.

Rhea Molato-Gayares: In the last two years, schools were closed to varying degrees across developing Asia. On average, students in developing Asia lost over half a year of effective learning, by international standards. But these losses are even greater in areas where schools have been closed longer. In many cases, students lost over a year of effective learning. It's as if they didn't learn anything that they should have learned in one full year.

Nisha Pillai: So, some startling findings there: over a year of lost learning in some cases. And you've actually tried to quantify the impact, the costs. Can you try and explain them to us?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: So, right now, they missed on some important building blocks that are appropriate for their age. They will be spending the next few years catching up on these building blocks. And, if they don't catch up, they will forever be slow in the learning process.

So, the skills that they will acquire in their lifetime will be less than what they could potentially acquire if they had not incurred this lost learning. And, because they have less skills, they will have less earnings in their lifetime. The total losses in expected lifetime earnings sum up to $3.2 trillion. That's more than one-eighth of developing Asia's GDP before the pandemic started.

Nisha Pillai: That's a very worrying statistic. And, presumably it wasn't shared equally across all socioeconomic groups in the region. How did it particularly affect the poorest and most disadvantaged young people?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: So, these students really suffered from the closing of schools during the pandemic. And they suffered much more than their peers from the richer households who have better access to computers and the internet. Several pictures resonate with me of students in slum areas sitting on the floor, writing on their notebooks with a dim light above them in a dark nook inside their home.

Imagine how much harder it is for students like these to understand what they're being taught remotely. And, imagine if these students have no parent or guardian available to help them throughout the day. Imagine if they had to learn on their own in these very challenging settings.

Nisha Pillai: That must have been impossibly difficult for so many young children because they didn’t have access to digital infrastructure. So, what are the learnings for the future? What do we now need to invest in to make sure that any future pandemic is not so disruptive?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: Internet access has become the lifeblood of remote learning in the midst of this pandemic. And, we know that access to the internet is uneven. Those from the poorest households have much less access to the Internet. We can improve infrastructure right now, in order to ensure that students of all income classes have access to the internet, to computers, to these elements of remote learning that will become necessary when another emergency strikes.

And we also need to equip students on the proper use of this technology. They need to learn how to use it properly. That investment is something that needs to be made now while we can. But, not only investment in infrastructure—it is equally important to invest in teachers’ capacity. They need to be well equipped on how to deliver remote pedagogy.

And, some of them underwent training in the midst of the pandemic to be able to shift quickly to this new form of instruction. Now, this kind of training can be embedded regularly into the teachers’ professional development. So, they need to be trained continuously and regularly on new approaches to delivering instruction.

Nisha Pillai: So, at last, we're seeing the welcome return to classrooms and face-to-face learning. What are some of the approaches that could be adopted to support students who have lost so much of their learning over the last couple of years?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: We need to be deliberate about this. We need to be proactive and get ahead of the game. There are innovations that have proven effective and at the top of that list is pedagogy that matches teaching. You can do that either by regrouping students according to their learning levels. Or, you can hire teaching assistants who will focus on smaller subgroups of students grouped together according to their learning abilities.

For example, there may be grade five students who are still at the level that are appropriate for grade three. Then they need to catch up on the learning starting from grade three and bring them up gradually to the level where they should be. That's more effective than forcing into them the grade five curriculum that they simply cannot absorb.

Nisha Pillai: Yes, so clearly new approaches are needed. But, hasn't COVID anyway got teachers to reassess and rethink how to support remote learning?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: There are innovations that have been tested in the midst of the pandemic. One of those innovations is actually a low-tech, low-cost solution, which is mentoring individual students through mobile phone calls. It's not very costly because every household has access to a mobile phone. So, you can actually reach every student by calling their mobile phones. And, there are schools that mainly cater to low-income students.

Nisha Pillai: And, what about ensuring that classrooms are safe from a health perspective?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: These schools need more support in ensuring that holding classes in person is safe from COVID. Ensuring the safety usually means expanding space or upgrading facilities like instituting handwashing stations. So, these schools need more financial support to be able to install these upgrades.

Nisha Pillai: And finally, Rhea, it appears that the pandemic has underscored the importance of education, not just as a socioeconomic issue, but as a broader international development issue. Indeed, an issue of human development itself?

Rhea Molato-Gayares: That's absolutely right. What started as a health crisis and blossomed into a full-blown economic crisis has now the potential to turn into an education crisis. If there is a silver lining to this crisis, perhaps it's the chance to revitalize education systems and make them more effective and more resilient than ever before. This is a chance to adjust the curriculum and ensure that foundational skills are mastered. A chance to adjust instruction to the level of students’ learning, a chance to make education truly learned by every student of all classes.

Nisha Pillai: Rhea, thank you so much for joining us on ADB Insight and for sharing your very important insights into this issue.

Rhea Molato-Gayares: You're welcome, Nisha. I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss this important issue. Thank you for having me.

Nisha Pillai: Indeed, thank you to everyone for joining ADB Insight. I'm Nisha Pillai. Until the next time, goodbye.


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