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A lost generation: fears long-running school closures will harm children around the world

Millions of Ugandan children returned to study in January after the world’s longest Covid-19 school closure CREDIT: REUTERS/ESTHER RUTH MBABAZI

In east Africa, millions of Ugandan children returned to study in January after the world’s longest Covid-19 school closure.

Some 15 million pupils had not attended school in Uganda since March 2020 when classrooms were closed as the pandemic first swept the world. Teachers also say the 83 week-long closure has will lead to a “lost generation” for the country.

Stuart Lubwama, headteacher of Entebbe Bright Secondary School on the outskirts of the capital Kampala, says that many teenage boys went out to make money in construction, farming or hustling on the streets. He adds there has been an explosion of teenage pregnancies.

The government recorded nearly 650,000 teenage pregnancies between 2020 and 2021, an astronomical rise for a country of only 45m.

Out of 400 children in Entebbe Bright Secondary School before the school closure, only about 200 have returned so far. "We are losing a generation. They have lost a lot of progress," says Mr Lubwama.

Whilst in richer countries schools switched to online learning that was not possible in many parts of the world.

“We cannot use remote learning here in Uganda as connectivity is not high,” said Mr Lubwama. The Indian government also moved learning online but only eight per cent of Indian homes have access to a computer with an internet connection and just a quarter of Indians own a smartphone. In many families, there is just one smartphone and this is owned by the breadwinner or head of the family, usually the father, who needs the device for their own work. As a result, only 20 per cent of school age children have been able to regularly access remote learning during the pandemic, according to a survey carried out by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a Delhi-based think tank. This figure is also skewed towards urban, affluent households in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. It drops to eight per cent of children in rural areas, according to a nationwide survey by over 100 education activists in August 2021. “We have seen the divide between schooling evolving. We simply don’t have enough schemes providing laptops and tablets to school children or teachers who are educated in how to use these devices,” says Pradyumna Jairam, a researcher at King's College London and former school teacher in India.

Remote learning was not an option in Uganda, where connectivity is low CREDIT: AFP/BADRU KATUMBA

It is unclear how many children have dropped out of education in the last two years but in many poor families there has been increasing pressure to earn money due to the historic levels of unemployment the pandemic has brought. Around one in five secondary school children have dropped out, according to estimates by the Unified District Information System for Education, an Indian government database. In Delhi alone two million children are missing from school, according to the All India Parents Association. These children face a lifetime of poorly paid, daily wage jobs such as labouring on a construction site or running a street stall, instead of the skilled professional career they might have been able to get if they had finished their education. “These dropouts will not be skilled and ready for the job market. We already do not have enough jobs for unskilled workers, and low income families are already going through income distress due to the Covid-19 induced economic crash,” said Yamini Aiyar, president of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. “Even if just 10 per cent of students drop out, we could see social schisms, the gap between the haves and the have nots in India has been exposed tremendously during Covid-19. If the have nots don’t get educated then it will get deeper,” said Gayatri RP, the CEO of the 321 Foundation, an education NGO in Mumbai. The children of India’s wealthiest families have been able to access online and private tuition and are still expected to claim places at prestigious universities in India or abroad and dominate the job market. But the economic crunch means fewer students from India’s middle classes are likely to pursue higher education and this is likely to exacerbate existing skills shortages in some specialised fields, like IT and engineering. “As the Indian economy recovers we will need skilled workers. We already had widely publicised skills shortages before Covid-19 and I think this is going to be exacerbated by the learning loss,” said Ms Aiyar.

A health worker inoculates a student with a dose of the Covaxin vaccine at a government high school in Bangalore CREDIT: AFP/MANJUNATH KIRAN

Ms Taneja agrees, adding that there will be even less social mobility with lower income children being unable to get top jobs in India, particularly those from lower caste or minority communities. “Kids who could have been better off will suffer financially for the rest of their lives. There will be more poverty and destitution and it’s a big loss to India and its hopes of becoming an economic superpower in the years to come,” she adds. A concerning learning loss has been noted amongst children returning to schools that could also limit their competitiveness in the future job market. A survey of 16,000 school students by the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru last year found 92 per cent had lost one language skill, such as reading comprehension or writing a simple sentence. A further 82 per cent of students had lost one key maths skill , such as using basic arithmetic. At the Limra English School and Junior College in the town of Nalasopara in India’s western state of Maharashtra, teachers told the Telegraph they feared that because they have missed so much learning only 50 per cent of the current cohort of students would pass college and university entrance exams. “We used to be very proud that many would go on and get good jobs but now we don’t think it will be possible. This will all be washed away,” said Tarannum Shaikh, an English teacher. In neighbouring Pakistan just 14 weeks of school closures in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake was enough to put affected children between one-and-a-half and two years behind in test scores, compared to their peers, according to a University of Oxford study. “Be it soft skills or hard technical skills, what you could have learnt if you were having five hours of dedicated learning, you don’t get that from 30 minutes on a mobile phone,” said Ms Taneja.

India has long been touted as the world’s next major economic superpower. It has achieved remarkable growth – over 270 million Indians were pulled out of poverty between 2005 and 2015, according to the United Nations Development Programme – have helped make it the world’s fifth-largest economy. And its youthful population – more than half its citizens are under the age of 25 – meant it was set for further expansion. However, experts fear that benefits from this demographic dividend are now under threat. India’s draconian Covid lockdowns mean many children have missed out on large chunks of education, many will never return to school and the already huge gap between rich and poor has become even wider. In March 2020, schools and other education institutions closed their doors and by August 2021 many students still hadn’t returned to their classrooms. India’s parlous public health system means that the only way to control Covid is to lock down. Some states reopened their schools in the Autumn but many closed again in December or January, when omicron emerged. In India’s financial capital of Mumbai, primary schools and secondary schools have only been open for three weeks and three months, respectively, since March 2020. “It is effectively a lost generation. It’s a cliche but that probably is how it is,” says Anjela Taneja, advocacy lead at Oxfam India. “Whatever last hope we had of making use of the demographic dividend has probably been lost.”

A student walks through a sanitisation tunnel on her way to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at a private school, in Kolkata CREDIT: AP/Bikas Das

The World Bank has warned that the ongoing school closures will devastate Indian economic growth in the long-term, due to the loss of earnings and skills development, putting current Indian students at a disadvantage in the job market. By October 2020, school closures had already cost the Indian economy an estimated £6.5 billion, according to the World Bank. This is also a global problem, a recent report by the World Bank warned this generation of students now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, far more than the $10 trillion estimated in 2020.