3 Presentations, 9 Takeaways on the Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Learning and How Education Systems Can Respond

On the third day of the annual UNU-WIDER Conference on 8 September, RISE presented findings from three studies on COVID-19's impact on education systems. These studies underline the urgent need to remediate learning losses, but they also illustrate how systems can ‘build back better’.


Image of Joseph Bullough

Joseph Bullough

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

RISE’s panel on the third day of the UNU-WIDER Conference last month set out to shed light on the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on children’s learning outcomes. Three studies were presented: simulations of potential learning losses, actual empirical measures of learning lost in Nigeria, and a study of efforts to remediate and recover from the pandemic in Pakistan. 

Taken together, the three presentations highlighted the ways in which the pre-existing learning crisis has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and underlined the need for immediate responses to remediate losses by prioritising foundational skills, assessing children on return, and aligning instruction with children’s new levels. Simultaneously, they highlighted the potential that recovery (if done right) has to drive long-term systems change that brings instruction and children’s levels into better alignment. 

What do simulations suggest we can we expect from losses, and how can systems best respond?

  • A study by Michelle Kaffenberger models projected learning losses from the pandemic-induced school closures and simulates different mitigation scenarios to help education leaders plan for school reopening. It found that the youngest children stand to lose the most: For today’s 1st graders, missing half a year’s learning could reduce long-term learning outcomes by more than two years.

Bar graph showing scenarios of no shock and initial learning loss of 1/3 of a year and 1/2 of a year, with the greatest learning loss resulting from half a year's closures. A note written next to the graph says, "For today's first graders, missing half a year's learning could reduce long term learning outcomes by 2.2 years"
  • COVID-19 could cause losses that far exceed the actual time schools have been closed, because learning losses can continue to build after children return to school; when children re-enter school behind the curriculum, they continue falling further behind without remediation.  

  • Kaffenberger identifies three clear steps to mitigate losses (and potentially even build systems back stronger) following the return to school:
    1. Set learning goals that focus on foundational skills
      Children who miss foundational skills early rarely catch up, and young children who miss foundational skills face the largest negative, long-term consequences.
    2. Adapt instruction to meet children where they are
      Children will need remedial instruction when they return to school. Approaches such as streamlining or condensing the curriculum, beginning the year teaching from the previous year’s curriculum, and Teaching at the Right Level-type approaches can help. (All require supporting, equipping and enabling teachers to adapt instruction.) ALIGNS principles can help.
    3. Strive for system changes that better align instruction and children’s levels not just in the short-term, but in the long-term
      Political openness to addressing low learning and curriculum reforms to better align instruction with children’s learning levels and needs (for example, supporting pedagogy that teaches concepts and procedures, and ensures children fully master content before moving on) is critical and could help systems come back from the crisis stronger than before.

Long-term effects of mitigation strategies for today's third grade students

Bar chart showing a half year of no mitigation, a half year of short-term remediation, and half a year of short-term remediation plus long-term reorientation. Notes by the side of the graph say that remediation programs when children return could reduce long-term learning loss. Another note says that keeping good practices in place long-term could help systems come back stronger than before.

Empirical evidence shows large learning losses during school closures, but also successful efforts at recovery of lost learning.

Empirical evidence shows large learning losses during school closures, but also successful efforts at recovery of lost learning.

  • A new empirical study by the RISE Nigeria Country Research Team (Okoye) measured learning losses during 6 months of school closures for Grade 2 to 4 students across 76 low-cost private schools in Nigeria. It pointed to a significant shock from closures, with losses roughly the same for girls and boys.
  • Learning levels recovered with supplemental lessons, but unequally; children with less educated parents and no access to learning at home were most likely to fall behind.

Graphs titled "Learning Losses and Recovery by Mother's Education," showing English and mathematics z-scores for children with mothers with some education and no education, shown for pre- and post-covid periods. Children whose mothers had some education experienced a lesser decrease in scores during COVID and improved more after COVID
  • While the ability to learn from home can help to mitigate losses for some, learn-from-home strategies also risk exacerbating existing inequalities and widening learning divides.

What do we learn from a pilot study of one such recovery programme that aims to help children catch up on foundational skills in Pakistan?

  • A study underway by the RISE Pakistan Country Research Team (Macdonald et al) evaluates the implementation of a remedial targeted instruction programme to help struggling primary students in Grades 1 through 5 catch up on basic literacy and numeracy across 1250 primary schools following the pandemic-induced school closures in Pakistan.
  • The programme also makes use of a low-tech technology tool (an app available on smart phones), which supports teachers to assess, group, and teach children at the level they are at when they return to school.

Example of screens from a tech tool to support administration: a welcome screen, library, grading/sorting, results (skill view), and results (child view)
  • Results from the initial pilot of 8 private schools show strong gains to learning outcomes, with an investigation into the full sample of 1250 schools (plus causal attribution) underway.

Graphs titled "Strong results from first cycle of NGO ICT Pilot," with the caveat that there is no control group. Results are shown for Urdu, Math, and English, for Level 1, 2, and 3, at baseline, midline, and endline.

The recording for this panel will be available in the coming weeks on the UNU-WIDER Conference YouTube page.

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