Disruptions to learning – Faisal Bari

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IN a study examining the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women working in Pakistan’s informal sector, one of the women we interviewed said that she feared that her loss of income over the lockdown period, the resulting indebtedness, and the continued impact on her and her husband’s income even after the lockdown period would mean that she would not be able to send any of her children back to school when schools reopened.

This woman was extremely upset over the prospect of not being able to send her children to school anymore, but said that she could not see any other option. She anticipated her income would continue to be lower than the pre-pandemic period for quite some time and, given that her priority for food, shelter and healthcare was higher than education, she felt she had no choice. Moreover, she also had to pay back the debts that had accumulated over the last few months.

This is not the story of just one household. A lot of low- to middle-income households already have or will face the prospect of similar trade-offs this year. The academic year is not only going to be shorter this time round, as we lost a few months due to closure of schools, it is going to be a disrupted one too, as we can expect micro lockdowns to continue throughout the year until either the virus subsides or we have good medicines for prevention and/or cure.

But the main problems in education, for the coming year and beyond, are going to be elsewhere. Though schools have opened, in stages, in the month of September, according to some reports a substantial proportion of children have not yet come back to classes. Some of this could be transitory and the continued impact of uncertainty about the health risk to children and hence parental caution. But some of it is due to other factors related to loss of parental income, learning losses over the last six months and other disruptions to families’ lives that have resulted from the pandemic. And we can be sure that, whatever the impact on enrolment and dropout rates, there will be a differentially more severe impact on girls of school-going age as compared to boys of school-going age.

Parental income has been disrupted for most people working on a daily wage basis, in casual labour, in the informal sector and for people working in or owning small businesses. Even after the lockdown was lifted, business has been slow to bounce back. Unemployment has gone up, inflation remains high and many people have had to switch jobs and/or reduce work hours to still be able to get some income.

Many people also accumulated debts over the last six months. Most families, who did not have savings and relied on income for expenditures, had to absorb a major expenditure shock as well when the income shock hit. People cut back on many expenditures, including, reportedly, on educational expenditures. Parents were not able to pay school fees over the period that schools were closed. Many could not pay for any coaching services over the period either.

The ability to switch to online education is also tied to income levels to an extent. But another important factor is regarding parental and, importantly, maternal education. In line with other work, our data also suggests that mothers who had a higher level of education, even controlling for income levels, were able to help their children more: they could guide their education, provide more support, and were able to get more support for their children.

Our data also tells us, quite clearly, that the burden of household chores fell more heavily on the female members of the household. So, even where support for education was available, girls of school-going age have had to adjust their educational activities with more household chores than boys.

All of the above suggests that since we had a long break of almost six months in school education — in which children from lower- and/or lower-middle income households did not have access to online educational and learning resources; did not have coaching and/or other support; or had less of each of these; and did not have educational support from parents as well, or not to the extent that better off or more educated parents were able to provide — learning losses would be substantial in a large segment of the school-going population. Not only that, but these losses might be even more significant for the girl child.

So, quite a few children might not go back to schools — especially girls. Those who return might have significant learning losses, and these losses will not be similar across the income spectrum. Children from lower-income households are likely to have faced more of a break in their education. Educational inequality has definitely gone up due to the pandemic. If we do not have remedial education available for these children, they are at a higher risk of an early exit. Even if they survive this year, they will be left behind even more in terms of learning outcomes, and their next academic year will be much harder and is as likely to lead to an early exit from education.

There is, thus, a lot of work that needs to be done. We need to bring all children who were in schools before the pandemic back to school. This might require income transfers to parents and other incentives to ensure this. There will need to be a higher focus on girls in this case. We need to offer remedial education to all children, but this has to be based on assessments of learning losses. This will require customising remedial education. And we will need to do all this in the current academic year, or risk losing a large cohort of students.