The study of the ways in which the pandemic can be expected to influence the opportunity to learn can be based on what is known about the determinants of access to school and learning, drawing on research predating the pandemic.
Opportunity to learn can be usefully disaggregated into opportunity to access and regularly attend school, and opportunity to learn while attending and engaging in school. John Carroll proposed a model for school learning which underscored the primacy of learning time. In his model, learning is a function of time spent learning relative to time needed to learn. This relationship between aptitude (time needed to learn) and learning is mediated by opportunity to learn (amount of time available for learning), ability to understand instruction, quality of instruction, and perseverance (Carroll, 1963).
In a nutshell, the pandemic limited student opportunity for interactions with peers and teachers and for individualized attention—decreasing student engagement, participation, and learning—while augmenting the amount of at-home work which, combined with greater responsibilities and disruptions, diminished learning time while increasing stress and anxiety, and for some students, aggravated mental health challenges. The pandemic also increased teacher workload and stress while creating communication and organizational challenges among school staff and between them and parents.
Clearly the pandemic constrained both the home conditions and the school conditions that support access to school, regular attendance, and time spent learning. The alternative strategies deployed to sustain the continuity of schooling in all likelihood only partially restored opportunity to learn and quality of instruction. Given the lower access that disadvantaged students had to technology and connectivity, and the greater likelihood that their families were economically impacted by the pandemic, it should be expected that their opportunities to learn were disproportionately diminished, relative to their peers with more access and resources and less stressful living conditions.
As a result of these constraints on opportunity to learn, the most vulnerable students were more likely to disengage from school. Such disengagement is, in effect, a form of school dropout, at least temporarily. As students fall behind because of their lack of engagement, this further diminishes their motivation, leading to more disengagement. It is possible that such a form of temporary dropout may lead to permanent dropout as learners take on other roles, and as learning recovery and catch up become more difficult as they fall further behind in terms of curricular expectations. The children who drop out will add to the already large number of children out of school, 258 million in 2018 (UNESCO, 2018). UNESCO has estimated that 24 million children are at risk of not returning to school (UNESCO, 2020a) which would bring the total number of out of school children to the same level as in the year 2000, in effect wiping out two decades of progress in educational access (UNESCO, 2020c, 2). These estimates are based on the following likely processes: (a) educational and socioemotional disengagement, (b) increased economic pressure, and (c) health issues and safety concerns (UNESCO, 2020a).
In addition to the direct impact of the health and economic shocks on student engagement, the lack of engagement of students was a function of the inadequacy of government efforts to sustain education through alternative means and the circumstances of students. In Mexico, for instance, the Federal Ministry of Education in Mexico closed schools on March 23, 2020; these closures remained in effect for at least a year. When the academic year began on August 24, 2020, the government deployed a national strategy for education continuity consisting of remote learning through television, complemented by access to digital platforms such as Google and local radio educational programming, with programs of teacher professional development on basic ICT skills to engage students remotely (World Bank, 2020c; SEP, Boletín 101, 2020). A television strategy was adopted for education continuity during the pandemic since only 56.4% of households have internet access, while 92.5% have a television (INEGI, 2019) and Mexico has a long-standing program of TV secondary school (Ripani & Zucchetti, 2020). Since March 2020, educational television content was delivered through Aprende en Casa I, II, and III (Learning at Home). Some Mexican states complemented the national strategy with additional measures, such as radio programs and textbook distribution, which were planned locally (World Bank, 2020c). Indigenous communities were also reached in 15 indigenous languages through partnerships with local radio networks (Ripani & Zucchetti, 2020). The State of Quintana Roo, for example, which has a large Mayan population, produced and distributed educational workbooks for students on various subjects written both in Spanish and Mayan languages (SEQ, 2020). The State Secretary of Education also created a YouTube channel with video lessons and a public television channel, within Quintana Roo’s Social Communication system, that was solely dedicated to the distribution of educational content (Gonzáles, 2020; Hinckley et al., 2021).
While the choice of a TV-based strategy for education continuity was predicated on the almost universal accessibility to television, and on a long tradition of the Ministry of Education producing educational TV (Telesecundaria), a survey conducted in June 2020 by an agency of the Mexican government showed that 57.3% of the students lacked access to a computer, television, radio, or cell phone during the emergency and 52.8% of the strategies required materials that students did not have in their homes (MEJOREDU, 2020a). In the same survey, 51.4% of students reported that the activities online, on the TV, and on radio programs were boring (MEJOREDU, 2020a). Students reported challenges to learning stemming from limited support or lack of explanations from their teachers, lack of clarity in the activities they were supposed to carry out, limited feedback on the work completed, lack of knowledge about their successes or mistakes in the activities, insufficient understanding of what they were doing, less learning and understanding, and perception of not having the necessary knowledge to pass onto the next grade. More than half of the students (60% at the primary level and 44% at the secondary level) indicated that during the period of remote learning they had simply reviewed previously taught content (MEJOREDU, 2020a).
The same study canvassed teachers for their views on factors which prevented student engagement, 84.6% of the teachers mentioned lack of internet access, 76.3% mentioned lack of electronic devices to access activities, and 73.3% mentioned limited economic resources (MEJOREDU, 2020a, p. 10). Students, in turn, reported the following as factors which excluded them: difficulty in following the activities (“it’s difficult,” “I don’t understand,” “I don’t have time”) followed by stress or frustration, the need to attend to housework, obligation to take care of other people, and lack of motivation expressed as laziness, tiredness, boredom, loss of interest, or discouragement. Half of the students reported that the tasks involved in learning remotely caused stress and 40% reported sadness and low levels of motivation (MEJOREDU, 2020a, p. 10).
Mexico’s approach to education continuity is illustrative of the approach followed by many other countries. Costa Rica, for example, also closed down schools upon the declaration of a national emergency in March 2020, transitioning to a virtual school program, delivered through an online program, and a distance learning program that varied throughout different cantons in the country (Diaz Rojas, 2020). These were supplemented by an educational television program of two hours a day during weekdays for students in the upper elementary grades, a daily one-hour radio program augments these efforts. Five months after the initiation of the virtual strategy, 35% of the students had not logged into the free online accounts provided to them by the Ministry (Direccion de Prensa y Relaciones Publicas, 2020).
Bangladesh also closed schools on March 16th, 2020, and gradually extended what was to be a two week lock down for at least a year, relying on a distance learning strategy of education continuity relying on internet, TV, radio, and mobile phones, which had serious challenges reaching students in a country where only 13% of the population used the internet in 2019 and only 5.6% of households have access to a computer (World Bank, 2019). Access to TV was greater, reaching 56% of the households, but very few had access to radio (0.6% of the population). While access to mobile phones was greater it was not universal, with 92% of families in the lowest wealth quintile with access to mobile phones, but only 19% of the total population with access to a smartphone (Bell et al., 2021; World Bank, 2019).
Some countries found the prospects of developing alternative forms of education continuity so daunting that they suspended the school year entirely. In Kenya, for instance, by July of 2020 the Ministry of Education had decided to close all public schools in the country until January 2021 and then restart the academic school year. The decision was revised in October of 2020, with a partial reopening of schools for the grades in which students take exams (grade 4, class 8, and form 4) in order to prepare students for the official school-leaving examinations and for critical transitions (Voothaluru et al., 2021).
In South Africa, COVID-19 was met by wide-scale school closures, with no practical way to shift to remote learning given lack of student access to the internet (Statistics South Africa, 2019; UNICEF, 2020). In September 2020, schools reopened after several months of being closed, only to close again in January 2021, during the second wave of the pandemic (UNICEF, 2020).
Even well-resourced countries shifted to remote instruction for at least a short period. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, the Ministry of Education shifted education to remote learning from March to June 2020. Upon resuming in-person instruction at the start of the new academic year, however, families had the discretion to choose whether to participate fully in-person, fully online, or in blended learning modalities. In spite of the strong commitment to inclusion of people with disabilities in the UAE, providing adequate accommodations for them was challenging (Mohajeri et al., 2021).
Among the many challenges faced by schools and education systems, as they relied on these alternative forms of educational continuity, was the assessment of students’ knowledge. Many national assessments were cancelled. Absence of information on student knowledge and skills prevented determining the extent of learning loss and the implementation of remedial programs to address it. Other challenges stemmed from teachers’ limited skills in teaching remotely, as shown earlier.
While the lack of reliable assessments of learning loss to date prevent estimating the full impact of the pandemic for most countries in the world, the limited studies available document deep impacts, particularly for disadvantaged students. A recent study conducted in Belgium, where schools were closed for approximately nine weeks, shows significant learning losses in language and math (a decrease in school averages of mathematics scores of 0.19 standard deviations and of Dutch scores of 0.29 standard deviations as compared to the previous cohort) and an increase in inequality in learning outcomes by 17% for math and 20% for Dutch, in part a result of increases in inequality between schools (an increase in between school inequality of 7% for math and 18% for Dutch). Losses are greater for schools with a higher percentage of disadvantaged students (Maldonado, De Witte, 2020). A review of this and seven additional empirical studies of learning loss, of which one focused on higher education, finds learning loss also in the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, and Germany, although the amount of learning loss is lower than in the study in Belgium. A study in Switzerland finds learning loss to be insignificant and a study in Spain finds learning gains during the pandemic (Donnelly & Patrinos, 2021, 149). These seven out of eight studies that identified learning loss were conducted in countries where education systems were relatively well-resourced and covered relatively short periods of school closures: 9 weeks in Belgium, 8 weeks in the Netherlands, 8 weeks in Switzerland, 8–10 weeks in Australia, and 8.5 weeks in Germany (Ibid). The studies also show that while there is consistent learning loss for primary school students, this is not the case for secondary and higher education students.
In addition to the losses in educational opportunity just described, there may be some silver linings resulting from this global education calamity. The first is that the interruption of schooling made visible how important teachers and schools are to support learning, and how many other activities depend on the ability of schools to carry out their role effectively. As teachers had to depend on parents to support students in learning more than is habitual under regular circumstances, this may have created valuable opportunities for mutual recognition between teachers and parents. As each of these groups is now more cognizant of what the other does, perhaps they have learned to collaborate more effectively. Increased parental involvement in the education of their children may have also strengthened important bonds and further developed parenting skills. For some children, it is possible that the freedom from the routines and constraints of schools, and from some of the social pressures resulting from interaction with peers, may have provided opportunities to learn independently and for greater focus, depth, and reflection.
The emergency also made visible the importance of attending to the emotional well-being of students and showed that integrating this as part of the work of schools is not only intrinsically valuable, but also part and parcel of a good education. In attempting to provide emotional support to students, teachers also had to re-prioritize the curriculum, engaging in a valuable exercise of rethinking what is truly important for students to learn. Facing the challenge of reprioritizing the curriculum, some countries embarked on a process of revision for the long haul.
For instance, the South African Directorate of Basic Education has taken a multi-pronged approach to address this complex set of issues. Two such approaches include (1) A short-term―3 year―education recovery plan in response to COVID-19, to address learning loss, and (2) A medium to long-term curriculum modernization plan (2024 onward), aimed at addressing the issue of curriculum relevance and preparing learners for the fast-changing world. The Directorate of Basic Education is working with the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) to establish a Competency-Infused Curriculum Task Team (CICTT) mandated to conceptualize and provide a set of policy and implementation recommendations for a modernized curriculum (Eadie et al., 2021).
Creating alternative forms of education delivery during the emergency provided an opportunity for innovation and creativity, an opportunity that many teachers took up, demonstrating outstanding professionalism. The organizational conditions which unleashed such creativity and professionalism need to be better understood, as they may represent a valuable dividend generated by this pandemic, which could be usefully carried forward into the future.