COVID-19 and the child left behind

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Among the specific targets of Goal 4 are free and equal access to education and the achievement of universal literacy and numeracy.

Today, only five years after Agenda 2030 was adopted, we are facing one of the largest disruptions in the history of global education. As many as 1.5 billion children—ninety percent of pre-primary through tertiary learners—have been affected by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. The current generation of students must somehow adapt to a significant discontinuity in formal schooling.

Who is most affected?

The many consequences of this current disruption are still being determined, but it is safe to assume that both the short- and long-term effects will not be felt equally. Education is a cumulative process whereby past learning and resources affect students’ current level of achievement. For children facing disparities in education, an extended loss of formal schooling elevates their risk of widening learning gaps and of being left behind. In other words, the impact of this pandemic on already disadvantaged children could be devastating.

To give us some idea of long-term effects, we can look at studies of other types of events resulting in school closures. A study by Das, Daniels, and Andrabi analyzes students’ learning following an earthquake in Pakistan. Their study shows significant long-term learning losses. Importantly, they note how the earthquake (and the resulting disruption of schooling) amplified existing inequalities.

Our current scenario appears to be following a similar trend. This post by Emily Oster looks at data from Opportunity Insights on US students to show how learning losses while away from school are more pronounced for children living in poorer districts and for students in schools with majority Black or Hispanic students. That is, students who are already marginalized due to income and race are paying a higher price.

Increasing obstacles

The barriers to quality education, which have long existed for disadvantaged students, are being augmented by the current crisis. Low-performing schools were already lagging behind in some of the basic inputs for educational achievement, such as teacher capability, effective school management, access to resources, and parental support (World Development Report 2018). Teachers and administrators are now being forced to work through entirely new platforms and being asked to come up with original approaches to a profession that has for centuries consisted of standing in front of a group of students and passing on knowledge. This “chalk and talk” method is especially common in developing countries, where students are most at risk of being failed by the system (Glewwe and Muralidharan, 2016).

Access to technology will be crucial with a wider adoption of distance learning. This is already revealing large disparities in some contexts in the developing world where access to an internet connection can be as low as five percent. More than internet connection, disadvantaged students may lack the supportive environments that other students can benefit from. Parents of lower-income students are more likely to work in jobs that cannot be performed at home, putting these children at higher risk of being left alone or in improvised care. On the other hand, higher income parents may have more flexible working arrangements and be better positioned to help students with their lessons, and even to supplement instruction.

What is more, underprivileged students are dealing with a level of trauma that their peers are, for the most part, protected from. If parents are no longer working, then everyone in their households faces added anxiety and insecurity (food, housing, etc.) from the loss of income. On top of this, there is isolation from peers, teachers, and administrators who would normally provide social and emotional support that may be unavailable at home.

Policy response

Designing an appropriate policy response to assist children at risk of being left behind is challenging. Even in normal times, the precise components that determine educational quality in a given setting are difficult to predict and measure. With the added complications introduced by the pandemic—the extensive erosion of learning and the distractions generated by necessary health and safety precautions—methods that have been successful in the past may prove irrelevant or unusable. As an example, performance-pay programs that incentivize teachers for their students’ academic progress have been shown to be effective in raising student learning (Muralidharan and Sundararaman, 2011). Yet, in a context where factors outside the teachers’ control are likely to have a larger influence on students’ performance, teachers may be less responsive to these types of incentives.

Regardless of the specific intervention, evidence-based policy design is key. Details matter, including the context in which any policy is implemented. In particular, policymakers should explicitly recognize the heterogeneity in the impacts of different approaches. This would allow them to identify interventions that are most likely to help marginalized students. If we prioritize efforts for the children most in need, there is a chance that we could not only get through this disruption, but perhaps even come out for the better. That is, the current crisis can be used as a catalyst for addressing the serious misalignments that have long existed within the educational systems of many countries (World Development Report 2018).

Being forced to reexamine schooling in new ways may encourage more effective adaptations.

With this goal in mind, the quality of instruction and the ability of teachers to take advantage of developments in pedagogy are particularly promising domains. Being forced to reexamine schooling in new and innovative ways may encourage more effective adaptations of the curriculum such as teaching to students’ needs rather than forcing all students to conform to standardized expectations. For example, a growing body of evidence shows that supplemental remedial instruction at a level that matches students’ level of learning improves educational outcomes. These types of interventions that increase individualized attention can ensure stronger foundational skills for a broader range of students. Particularizing educational content in the midst of the current global pandemic may be especially important for marginalized students, who are often seen as deviating from what is considered a ‘typical’ learner.

Beyond the need for pedagogical innovations, the importance of a supportive home environment has become clearer. However, without a wider range of assistance interventions for families (e.g. income and housing support, leave policies, flexible work arrangements, etc.), it may be unrealistic to assume that most parents will be able to provide adequate support in a context of sustained home-learning. Schools may thus need to operate from the assumption that this support is not available (especially in lower income contexts) and refine their strategies for reaching out to students and for playing a greater role in promoting an environment that is conducive to learning. This, once again, may require a recognition of the distinct needs of different students and families to more effectively target assistance.

A quality education is a direct and time-tested means of advancing integral human development.

Clearly, this type of targeted support will require additional resources. While the toll on governments’ budgets may be substantial in the short term, we should not overlook the risk of even higher costs in the longer term. That is, higher tolerance for additional debt in the present is justified by the risk of significant productivity and developmental losses in the future. This type of ‘future value’ considerations are necessary in the domain of education policy, where the impact of every year in a child’s life is amplified by the cumulative nature of learning and the risk of being left behind at different stages of the path is high.

Every child is born with the same dignity and right to develop fully as a person; a quality education is a direct and time-tested means of advancing integral human development. Education policy can thus play a key role in promoting the holistic development of the human person (economic, cultural, social, personal, and spiritual). The UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development recognizes this role and is committed to leaving no child behind. Yet, by the time any cohort of children in different parts of the world comes of school age, different children in the same cohort face strikingly different prospects due to the circumstances of their birth. It is time to stop punishing children for unfortunate circumstances in which they have no say. The current pandemic has made the need for educational policy with an explicit ‘redress’ goal all the more salient. It is time to reaffirm every child’s human dignity.


Patrizio Piraino is associate professor of education, labor, and development in the Keough School of Global Affairs.

Elena Bartzen is a trained teacher and librarian with a postgraduate degree in education. She is currently a freelance writer, assisting health care organizations with patient education and digital content.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.



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