Africa Defense Forum
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Experts Wrestle with Scope of Pandemic Learning Losses


When the COVID-19 pandemic first closed schools throughout Malawi in March 2020, Patricia Siyati and her friends felt like they were on holiday.

But the pandemic changed everything.

Patricia’s school didn’t reopen for seven months. She soon realized that learning from home was difficult and endless chores needed to be done.

When COVID-19 infections surged again in January 2021, schools shut down for five more weeks.

Today, Patricia walks the rugged clay path to and from Makande Primary School in her southern Malawi town of Chikwawa, often contemplating how much learning she missed over the last two years.

She is one of 7.7 million Malawian children affected by COVID-19 school closures.

“I want to become a teacher, but my dream is under threat,” she told Malawian newspaper The Daily Times. “I work hard in class but when I get home, I mostly don’t have time to go through my books.”

Researchers around the world continue to grapple with the scale of learning loss as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. The biggest challenge is a lack of data from developing countries, which includes most of Africa.

But Malawi is an exception, thanks to the Malawi Longitudinal School Survey, a partnership between the government and the World Bank.

“[The survey] conducts regular learning assessments with a representative, longitudinal sample of students who were in Grade 4 in 2016-18,” the World Bank said on its website. “This rich data offers the sharpest available lens on learning trajectories for a nationally representative sample of students in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Employing data from the three rounds of the survey on the same students, twice prior to school closures, and once after reopening of schools, we produced the first comprehensive picture of students’ learning profiles before and after Covid-imposed school closure.”

The survey found that on average, students’ learning in English, math and Chichewa (the primary language of instruction) was 97 points below where it would have projected had the pandemic not occurred.

“This is the equivalent to around two years of lost learning in total at pre-pandemic levels,” the World Bank reported.

The survey data suggested two other troubling issues.

One was that the level of learning loss was greater than what statistics would correlate with seven months of school closure, something the World Bank called “a one-off reduction in knowledge from the COVID shock.”

But when students returned to school, learning did not return to their pre-COVID pace.

Malawian analysts have found the same learning loss trend in their measurements.

“The number of learners who sat the Standard Eight and the Form Four national examinations in 2021 went down remarkably,” education expert Steve Sharra told The Daily Times in December 2021.

“It dropped by seven percent for PSLCE [Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education] examinations and 16 percent for MSCE [Malawi School Certificate of Education] examinations.”

More insight came from a recent review of 29 studies from 17 countries that showed a significant loss of learning correlated to pandemic school closures.

In Malawi, the dropout rate increased from 1.2% before the pandemic to 4.3%.

“There are much higher rates of dropout at the secondary level,” said the authors of a study by the Center for Global Development when it was released on November 24, 2021. “But there is no real difference between girls and boys.

“We asked households what the reasons for children dropping out of school were. The leading response for boys was school fees (1 in 3 dropouts) and for girls, marriage or pregnancy (1 in 3 dropouts).”

The study found that 92% of headteachers implemented remedial learning in their schools, but data showed that remedial programs suffered from resource limitations and understaffing compounded with learners’ unwillingness to spend time outside of school hours.

Another problem the survey data revealed was a sharp drop in students’ rate of learning after returning to school, slowing from 13.4 points of learning for every 100 days of schooling before the pandemic to 6.9 points.

“This suggests that schools have not successfully adjusted their teaching to support students to catch up lost learning,” the World Bank said. “If this trend continues, we may see a growing gap in learning over time with students affected by COVID falling further behind their expected trajectories of learning.”

Pandemic learning losses are a global problem, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said after the organization released a report on March 30, 2022, entitled “Are children really learning?”

The report found that 147 million children around the world missed more than half of their in-person schooling in the past two years, amounting to 2 trillion hours of lost in-person learning.

“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers,” she said in a statement. “When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent.

“This rising inequality in access to learning means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”

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