To Minimise Learning Losses from COVID-related School Closures, First Help Kids Catch Up


Image of Joseph Bullough

Joseph Bullough

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Last week, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) featured a blog by Silvia Montoya, director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), on the worrisome effects of COVID-19 on learning. She has a clear message to education leaders and educationalists around the world: if learning losses are unavoidable, they can be reduced with catch-up strategies that include kids, teachers, and families.

Three reasons to be concerned

Dr Montoya is particularly concerned with the impact of Covid-19 at the primary level, which is causing children to miss out on essential foundational skills, the bedrock of children’s future education. She flags three reasons why we should be concerned about learning losses in foundational years of schooling and why swift action is needed:

Three figures, with progressively large question marks over their heads from left to right

As children fall further and further behind, they are less able to access curriculum and grasp new material.

  • Basic competencies are the building blocks for all education and are strong predictors of life opportunities. Consequently, lost foundational learning can potentially have devastating consequences, affecting children’s abilities to build upon and augment skills at secondary level.

A stylised child unable to solve a squaring problem without having mastery of basic multiplication, a more foundational skill
  • These skills are among the easiest to lose when schooling is interrupted. This has been shown by studies on reading ability losses during school vacation time—and, more recently, by a study in South Africa that showed losses were much greater than the actual number of school days lost would have suggested.

Two takeaways

Dr Montoya highlights two essential takeaways for action with this in mind:

  1. Countries need to deploy education catch-up strategies at both primary and secondary-level ‘at all costs’.

    Dr Montoya’s projections (based on UIS data) simulate learning trajectories after the crisis with and without remediation.  Her projections indicate that remediation can help students catch up, but returning to business as usual will leave many behind, with pre-pandemic learning levels only returning once affected children age out of the system.

  2. Mounting adequate, system-wide remedial responses to the crisis will not only help us deal with the current impact, but improve systems overall.

    Preliminary results from a survey of national education responses show that while the majority of low- and middle-income countries are planning to adopt remediation policies, many have still not considered them. Moreover, the majority of countries are not yet considering accelerated learning or increases in class time in response to the pandemic. This is a missed opportunity. These types of responses will not only help to overcome losses due to school closures, but also have the potential to help build back better systems in which instruction and curriculum are oriented around children’s actual learning levels.

What this means

Dr Montoya’s recommendations highlight the need to prioritise foundational skills and the importance of meeting children where they are now through remediation to ensure they don’t fall behind. Without remediation built into reopening plans, it will be difficult for kids to catch up. More broadly, Dr Montoya's message speaks to the need to ensure systems are orientated for learning, prioritising early, universal, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills and ensuring coherence across all system elements to align with this goal.

It’s important to remember that the world already faced a learning crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that learning regressions from the COVID-19 closures will only compound that crisis. Prioritising foundational skills and ensuring kids can catch up on them is not only a short-term goal following COVID-19 closures—it’s an essential long-term goal as well.


Read Silvia Montoya’s blog in full here on the GPE site.   

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Image attribution: Child Question by Christopher Smith from the Noun Project

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