Asia must act now to offset impact of school closures
China Daily

Students return to Shanghai Datong High School in Shanghai, East China, June 6, 2022. (Photo: Xinhua)

Profound impacts are already being felt by students-and parents and teachers-due to closure of schools in Asia in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and urgent action is needed to limit further damage to students and the broader economy.

School closures have affected more than 1.5 billion students in 195 countries, and could potentially impact their employment opportunities and future earnings, according to UNESCO. The learning and earning losses will also have long-term impacts on economic growth, poverty alleviation and reducing inequality. A recent study I co-authored estimates that school closures could cost the global economy $943 billion by 2030.

The loss of earnings due to school closures, which reduces labor productivity, will cause GDP to fall in almost all countries.

In societies where school enrollment in rural areas is considerably high, the economic impact tends to be large because students lack access to stable internet connections needed to study online. If a country has a high share of unskilled workers, learning and earning losses will be more significant. This is because the impacted children would be less likely to transition to higher education and more likely to instead enter the unskilled labor force.

For example, in Asia the countries most affected by learning losses are the Kyrgyz Republic (a 5.5 percent contraction in GDP against the baseline, assuming no COVID-19), Nepal (a 5.0 percent decline), Mongolia (a 4.9 percent decline), and Bangladesh (a 4.9 percent decline). These countries have had the longest school closures and deepest earning losses. Student enrollment in the rural, poorest wealth quintile is also high in the Kyrgyz Republic and Mongolia. The share of unskilled labor employment in Bangladesh, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia and Nepal is also well above the average of other Asian countries.

Singapore is an interesting exception. It will see an increase in GDP from 2026, reversing the early GDP losses. The initial losses are limited due to the small share of unskilled workers in the Singapore labor force, and the fact that school closures have not been as extensive as elsewhere in the region. A high share of skilled labor contributes to increased global competitiveness, given greater learning losses in other countries, eventually leading to faster growth.

More importantly, the impact of school closures is uneven on skilled and unskilled workers. Global employment losses are expected to reach 5.45 million for skilled workers and 35.69 million for unskilled workers in 2030. And economies with significant numbers of schoolchildren and college-going youths in rural areas-and in the poorest and second wealth quintiles-will be worst hit.

The gap between skilled and unskilled labor in employment losses also diverges over time. For skilled workers, the decline in employment will increase from 0.05 percent in 2024 to 0.22 percent in 2027 and 0.75 percent in 2030. For unskilled workers, the contraction in employment will increase from 0.12 percent in 2024 to 0.51 percent in 2027 and 1.15 percent in 2030.

School closures due to COVID-19 will likely leave long-term economic scars, both in terms of earning losses for individuals and reduction in long-term productivity and growth for economies. And without appropriate policy support, disruptions in school education will translate into fewer students transitioning to higher education, higher unemployment, and reduced earning potential.

This calls for urgent policy actions.

First, support learning recovery. The most immediate challenge is for governments to provide effective support for students impacted by school closures to recover from lost opportunities. To begin with, there is a need to conduct assessments of learning losses among the impacted school-age children. It is also important to identify the learning gaps and specific learning needs of individuals. And effective learning programs should be devised to offer appropriate support, such as tutoring or special classes, and help them bridge the learning gap.

Second, invest in education and skills. The impact of the pandemic on education affects the future workforce and labor skills. So it is essential that governments prioritize spending on education, even as they pare back budgets after expanded spending on COVID-19 mitigation.

Governments also need to direct adequate funding and resources toward young populations most affected by closures, such as those from poor, rural and socially disadvantaged groups. It is important to keep school-age children in education as much as possible by providing financial support and incentives for them, while giving additional support for skills training to youths already out of school.

Third, embrace the digital transformation in education. The pandemic promoted rapid digital transformation, and education systems should now be better prepared to support this as a key driver for productivity and economic expansion. Digital skills and awareness are key to narrowing the digital divide and unleashing new potential for inclusive and sustainable growth.

However, the pandemic has revealed key constraints of education systems, including the lack of digital curriculums, digital teaching tools and materials. Moreover, it exposed the lack of digital competencies among teachers and trainers.

Therefore, it is essential to seize opportunities to make progress during the post-pandemic recovery by rebuilding education systems to allow both face-to-face and remote learning, integrating digital tools and devices into teaching methods, improving digital skills through developing school curriculums, and training teachers to deliver effective learning.

The impacts of school closures are being felt extensively in Asia. And immediate actions are needed to mitigate further damage going forward.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

The author is director of regional cooperation and integration at the Asian Development Bank.

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