The unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region losing an additional year of learning outcomes, according to a new report launched by the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO. This loss is a result of extended school closures despite governments’ best efforts to provide remote learning including through digital platforms
The COVID education crisis came on top of the pre-existing learning crisis in the Middle East and North Africa where students were already at risk of poor learning outcomes. Even before the pandemic, nearly 15 million children between the ages of five to14 were out of school and nearly two-thirds of children across the region were unable to read with proficiency. An additional 10 million children were at risk of dropping out of school, due to poverty and social marginalization, as well as displacement and disruption caused by ongoing armed conflicts.
Analysis in the report shows widened inequalities for children and youth, including digital disparities, which risk doing long-term harm to children and youth. During the pandemic, around 40 percent of children – some 39 million children and adolescents – did not benefit from remote learning primarily due to digital poverty.
While global evidence indicates higher than projected learning losses arising from COVID-19, no systematic evidence is available to date on the impact that school closures have had on students in MENA. Further, there was not enough capacity to monitor and collect evidence of continued learning through remote teaching and other measures.
This joint report, “COVID-19 Learning Losses: Rebuilding Quality Learning for All in the Middle East and North Africa”, aims to help fill the evidence gap. It summarizes country responses to the education crisis due to the pandemic, estimates the potential learning loss, and presents recommendations including improved access for students, engagement of students, and an enabling environment for children to learn and thrive.
“COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges faced by schoolchildren across the Middle East and North Africa, creating a crisis within a crisis,” said Keiko Miwa, World Bank Regional Director for Human Development for the Middle East and North Africa. “Learning poverty in MENA is estimated to increase by over 10 percentage points, from the pre-pandemic level of 60 percent to 71. As countries in the region continue to grapple with the impacts of the pandemic and chart their paths toward an inclusive recovery, the urgency to act is now. Recovering and accelerating learning will require a transformation, and the World Bank will continue to work with our development partners and client countries as they build strong, resilient, equitable, and effective education systems to ensure quality learning for all.”
The simulations presented in the report project worsen education outcomes for millions of children in the region. The potential impact on children, many of whom were already vulnerable and disadvantaged, goes beyond education to encompass consequences for their mental health, well-being, socialization, and labour market participation, and expected lifetime earnings. Losses are projected to be as high as US$1 trillion for the region as a whole, in the worst-case scenario.
“The reopening of schools is so critical, not only for children’s education but also for their wellbeing. It is not enough to simply reopen classroom doors. School should be a safe place for children: to learn, play, and make friends. Those in charge should uphold their duties and responsibilities for the well-being, welfare, and safety of the children under their care during learning hours” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “In addition to resources for schools operations, a strategic shift is needed to reinforce life skills and the reduction of digital poverty, including through expanding internet bandwidth and making digital devices and equipment more available and affordable to all to bridge the digital gap”.
The safe reopening of schools should be countries’ highest priority. The cost of keeping schools closed is steep and threatens to hamper a generation of children and youth while widening pre-pandemic disparities. Growing evidence indicates that with adequate measures, health risks to children and education staff can be minimized. Reopening is the single best measure countries can take to begin reversing learning losses.
“It is imperative that we do not backslide, and instead we must work together to ensure that the realization of our target for SDG 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is met. We must offer evidence and guidance to orient our collective work and ensure that we build back better,” said Costanza Farina, UNESCO Regional Director for Education in the Arab States.
To tackle the learning crisis, countries in the region must first address the data gaps, by assessing students’ learning levels. It is critical for policymakers, school administrators, and teachers to have access to their students’ learning data disaggregated by subgroups of students so that they can target instruction and accelerate students’ learning recovery. UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank have formed the Learning Data Compact to provide coordinated support on closing learning data gaps.