Projecting school dropout and learning loss amid Covid-19

Covid-19 related school closures have affected 55.3 million children in Pakistan between five and 16 years of age

Dr Junaid Ahmed is working as Senior Research Economist at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

The global health crisis amid Covid-19 has adversely affected the education sector, particularly for school-age children. The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing to combat disease transmission. To date, the lockdown strategies have been proven effective to slow the transmission of disease, but complete lockdowns might not be efficient in the long run. Instead, the government should prioritise and expedite the implementation of the nationwide Covid-19 vaccination programme. To put into perspective, the Covid-19 related school closures have affected 55.3 million children in Pakistan between five and 16 years of age (pre-primary up to higher secondary).

The government’s initial response during school closures has been primarily related to remote learning, such as online lectures via Zoom and Microsoft Teams or televised broadcasting to ensure continued learning for children. Despite different attempts to continue education, the damaging effects due to school closures will be highly heterogeneous, as children of poor households are more vulnerable due to inadequate digital gadgets, internet connectivity, and — on top of all — lower parental education.

Using data on school closures, remote learning effectiveness, children attendance and household income, we quantified how school closure amid the pandemic may impact the learning and dropout of schoolchildren in Pakistan. Firstly, to understand the likely change in Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) after school closure using the scenario-based analysis. Secondly, to simulate the potential effect on children’s school attendance of a reduction in household income (i.e., by 10, 25, and 50%) of an average household in Pakistan to know the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on child school attendance.

The likely effect of Covid-19 school closures on learning loss would be more significant among students attending public and low-cost private schools with fewer resources or students from poor backgrounds. Besides, the adverse effect would exacerbate as school support has been reduced, and the increase in demand for students’ independent tasks. Similarly, digital inequality and teacher inexperience in providing high-quality remote learning adversely affect the students’ learning opportunities.

In Pakistan, the Expected Years of Schooling (EYS) and LAYS differ by about four years. For instance, children in Pakistan can expect to complete 9.4 years of pre-primary, primary, and secondary school by age 18. However, when adjusted for quality of learning, it is only equivalent to 5.1 years: a learning gap of 4.3 years exhibiting the low quality of the education system.

Factoring in the effect of Covid-19, this decreases to 4.80 years in the optimistic scenario. In the moderate scenario, school closures due to the pandemic could bring the average learning that students achieve during their lifetime to 4.40 learning-adjusted years (a decrease of 13.73%). In the pessimistic scenario, the loss is 0.9 years, with a reduction in LAYS of 17.65%. However, the impact on learning loss is more pronounced for girls than boys. The learning loss and the subsequent increase in dropout rates — are not likely to be temporary shocks but could continue to accumulate learning deficit even after children return to school.

Therefore, a significant concern is that short-term losses in learning due to school closure could continue to accumulate after children return to school. Subsequently, the closures could cause disproportionate learning losses and lead more of them to drop out of school in the long run.

Concerning the dropout, our predictions show that 10% reduction in income decreases children’s enrolment by about 1.659 million children. A 50% reduction in per capita expenditure decreases enrollment by 7.2 million.

Similarly, regarding different level of schooling, the decrease in the probability of child school attendance is larger for primary and secondary school children relative to pre-primary and middle school-age children. Also, it is evident that the adverse effect of the reduction in household expenditure would be for older rather than younger children, as the opportunity cost of going to school increases with the age of these children. This suggests that the older children would not go back to school after the forced interruption.

It is clear that the reduction in human capital due to the pandemic could have negative implications for social development and economic potential of the next generation. The policymakers should devise effective responses which can mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic cum school closure in Pakistan.

First, for safe reopening of the schools the identification and mapping of the affected areas will help raise the school closure in a targeted area, thereby minimising the potential negative impact of the disruptions on students learning and dropout. Second, in the long-term, the government should prioritise and expedite the implementation of the nationwide vaccination programme, so that all students can safely return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Third, the government’s priority should be to stimulate economic activities and the initiatives needed to cushion the economic impact on marginalised families to discourage child labour and school dropout. Forth, the curriculum should be adjusted in a way to accommodate extra lessons for the worst-affected students. In this context, the focus should be to strengthen our capacity through consistent investment in the infrastructure to develop a resilient education system of futuristic orientation.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2021.

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